Adventures in Learning — Part 1


I’m an adjunct instructor teaching INF 202 Introduction to Data and Databases and I’ve decided to use the Team-Based Learning (TBL) methodology. I’m excited about this methodology (it speaks to my background—more on that later), but I realize that it’s something of a brave new world both for me and for the University. My inclination is to share my experiences, gather as much feedback as I can, and evolve my approach in response. Boss Jen—Jennifer Goodall, Informatics Service Assistant Professor and Director of the Informatics/Information Science Undergraduate Program—felt my ruminations would be appropriate for the CCI blog. So here they begin.


For those of you who have not encountered TBL, I’ll provide a bit of background. Developed by Larry K. Michaelsen from the University of Oklahoma in the 1970s, the methodology is gaining wider acceptance—certainly that’s the case at the University at Albany.

In TBL, the class is radically reorganized. Lecture is minimized and team-based activities predominate. Teams are created in the first class and remain intact throughout the semester. The course content is divided into section, units, or modules—4-8 are ideal. Each section contains four parts: pre-class reading, Readiness Assurance Tests (RAT), in-class activities, and an end-of-section assignment. In my class, I’ve created 7 sections, each running from 2 to 3 weeks. So each section consumes 4–6 class periods.

Pre-Class Readings: Before the first class in each section, I assign the reading for that section. Mindful of  overwhelming the students with minutia, I try to keep the reading to under 100 pages.
Reading Assessment Process (RAP): On the first day of each section, the students take a 10-question, individual-work, multiple-choice test based on the readings (individual Readiness Assessment Test or iRAT). Before they get the results, the students retake the test as a group effort (team RAT or tRAT). During that time, I grade the iRATs (I’ve only got 20 in my class so that works fine—those with bigger classes can rely on computer aids to accomplish this task). The tRAT allows the students to debate ideas and bounce answers off each other. After that, the aggregated results of the individual tests (no names are used) are compared to the results of the team efforts. As you might expect, the group results are generally much better than the individual efforts (both count toward the final grade). At that point, I give a mini-lecture on the 2–3 questions that gave the students the most trouble. I also now have a pretty good idea which parts of the reading I need to focus on (the ones the students struggled with). Finally, the students have an opportunity to appeal any questions. They must, as a team, present an argument with evidentiary support why any answer other than mine is better or, at least, just as good. Given the requirement that the appeals support their claims, this process is a great learning opportunity, for both students and teacher. I’ll go into more detail about those in future notes.
In-Class Activities: These activities fill 3–5 class periods. In each, the teams are faced with a decision/selection problem related to the section’s theme. They debate among themselves, come to a decision, and report all their decisions out at the same time. If the activity has been designed well, the responses vary to some degree. Using that conflict, I tease out rationales and counter-arguments, affording a nice exploration of the topic. Ideally, the 3+ activities in a class relate to, and build off, each other. As the class progresses, the topic gets explored to some depth from several angles.
End-of-Section Assignment: This pulls together the high points or skills conveyed in the section. It also forces each student to work through the material individually and receive a grade on that effort.

A fuller description of the methodology and its research can be found in Michaelsen, Knight, and Fink, 2004, Team-Based Learning, Sylus Publishing.


In a prior career, I spent 15 years as a game designer/editor. Much of my work was in the area of roleplaying games (D&D and that ilk). When I was first introduced to TBL, I was immediately struck by the parallels with my game design work. The group dynamics of a roleplaying game are remarkable similar to TBL. Roleplayers put a great deal of effort into their games, all in the service of fun. My hope is that by taking inspiration from such games in designing my INF 202 activities, I can instill enough “fun” into my class to make the work seem much less . . . like work.

I’ll be sprinkling my reports about developments in my course with gaming references and parallels. The first relates to the name of this blog: Adventures in Learning. Whenever my family heads off on a trip in our minivan, I turn to the gang and say, “We’re off on a great adventure . . .” Surrounded by modern automobile, heated seats, lots of leg room, snacks, pillows, blankets, books, magazines, laptops, ereaders, iPods, luggage, and more snacks, my family is largely unimpressed with my statement. Likewise, with the support of my students, my fellow INF 202 instructors, Boss Jen, my fellow University at Albany TBL instructors, and the crack team at ITLAL, danger is not manifest in this endeavor. Still, I am heading out into the unknown, so “great adventure” it is.

End Game

If you stayed with me this long, let me say “Thanks”. Hopefully you’ve found something here of interest. If you have any thoughts, reactions, questions, or objections/concerns about what I’ve written, I would greatly appreciate your feedback.


Descriptions of the Team-Based Learning methodology, presented in this and subsequent entries, draw heavily from materials, seminars, and presentations sponsored by the Institute for Teaching, Learning and Academic Leadership (ITLAL). Whatever success I might have in my TBL course, and in these notes, owes a great debt to the extraordinary ITLAL staff.

More to come,
M Alexander Jurkat


7 thoughts on “Adventures in Learning — Part 1

  1. Sounds like you’re off to a good start. I’m intrigued with the fact that you see parallels to gaming. I hope you’ll say more on that subject.Larry

  2. This is sounds like an interesting approach, but as someone who detests team assignments (largely due to getting stuck with people who don’t do their parts or otherwise drag down the team), I’m curious about the topic of individual grades in a team-based environment. You stated that both the individual tests and the group tests are used for a person’s grade. Doesn’t that mean it is possible that a person could do better on his or her test than the team, and have the lower team score bring down his or her overall grade? I realize from what you’ve stated that the typical result is that the group scores better than individuals do. I just wonder if you’ll end up with any situation that doesn’t work that way.I’m also interested in seeing the parallels you see in gaming.

  3. Although it is possible that a person could do better on an individual test than their team does on the group test, it’s highly unlikely. First, the tests are the same. So an individual could only do worse if he or she lets the teammates’ consensus answer trump his or her own. In that case, he or she bears some portion of the fault for not being more convincing about the answer. Second, the group tests are graded slightly differently (allowing partial answer credit) than the individual tests, which tends to increase the score of the group test. Third, outside of the RAT process, individuals have other opportunities to be graded on their individual work. Finally, students have the opportunity to evaluate their teammates anonymously and that affects the teammates’ grades.In truth, TBL understands on a profound level the concern you express (it’s the major concern most students have about group work). Freeloading and decreased performance are specifically counteracted in the process in a number of ways. I’ll make sure to touch on those features during my series.

  4. Pingback: Adventurers in Learning — Part 2 | The CCI Student Center Blog

  5. Pingback: Adventurers in Learning — Part 3 | The CCI Student Center Blog

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