Team-based learning in action

As part of Innovative Learning and Teaching’s monthly seminar series, I recently presented a session exploring team-based learning (TBL) with a group of teaching staff at the Business School. My aim was to allow the group to explore why and when TBL does (or doesn’t) work.

What is TBL?
TBL is an example of a flipped classroom approach. The idea is that students pre-prepare for classes by reading and acquiring easily accessible knowledge. This means that when they reach the classroom they’re ready to engage in structured exercises designed to stimulate higher-level learning, particularly the application of learned concepts to diverse situations.

All undergraduate students who enrol for a business degree at the University of Auckland complete Business 101 and 102, which are delivered using a TBL format. Within the Graduate School of Management, an explicit commitment is similarly made to TBL. Outside these programmes many Business School lecturers are experimenting with TBL, motivated by its promise of effective teaching and more advanced learning, and reflecting the Faculty’s strategic commitment to the practice.

See a seven-minute video that will introduce you to TBL in the Business School.

Why examine TBL?
Sometimes staff who try TBL as a teaching approach become enthusiastic proponents but other times both staff and students say that reality falls short of the promise. In the lunchtime session I wanted to allow teaching staff to apply learning theories and research to TBL experiences and provide an opportunity to think about how TBL works and explore reasons why it might not.

TBL in action
I began the session began by getting everyone to think about the pre-work set for students to complete before they arrive in their TBL workshop. In theory all students will have understood key concepts prior to arrival in class. In practice, as most teachers will have experienced, this often doesn’t happen. As a consequence, however well-designed our in-class exercises are, some students will not be able to engage – the simplicity of group discussions generally correlates to the number of members who have not mastered the basic concepts. This point was well made when several attendees confessed that they had not quite managed to watch the short pre-session video! More seriously, the group noted a tendency for students to omit or rush their preparation. It was noted that some students also approach their reading very passively,which doesn’t allow them to fully understand the material. In the session we explored techniques for supporting the majority of students to actively approach pre-work and ways of designing pre-workshop experiences that enable most students to prepare in an active and engaged way.  These included setting short and interesting tasks, making sure students knew how they would need to use information in forthcoming classes and posing problems that students could solve by reading.

Later on in the session we examined a number of constructivist theories of learning (phenomenological and problem-based approaches).  We used principles derived from these to evaluate a sample application exercise. The participants generated some very worthwhile design principles and some sophisticated suggestions for improving application exercises. Perhaps the most important suggestion was in relation to decision-making tasks.   To enable students to supply an authentic response, sufficient information must be provided. In the interests of time we often try to cut back on the background information students have to process in order to complete exercises but activities in the session made it clear that this impaired the value and extent of learning. We also noted that the rigid principles of TBL delivery were largely but not entirely in accord with the principles derived from most of the learning theories.

While followinga strict TBL regime serves many situations, the session demonstrated that there is scope for creativity and flexibility in our team-based learning design,provided we remain informed by theory and research.


Collie, L. (Producer/Director). (2014). Team-Based Learning at the University of Auckland Business School [Video file].  New Zealand: The University of Auckland Business School. Retrieved from

Sibley, J. and Spiridonoff, S.  What is TBL? Centre for Instructional Support, The University of British Columbia Faculty of Applied Science. Retrieved from


Susan Geertshuis is Director, Learning and Teaching and Professor of Lifelong Learning at the University of Auckland Business School. She teaches within the School and leads the School’s Innovative Learning Team (ILT) and the Educational Development Unit (EDU). In addition to her roles in the Business School, Susan is Academic Director of Electronic Engagement and reports through to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic). Susan joined the University of Auckland in 2003 as Professor of Lifelong Learning where she was initially employed as Director of the Centre for Continuing Education, before moving to the Business School in 2012. Prior to moving to Auckland, Susan was Professor of Organisational Studies, Director of the Centre for Learning and Innovation in Organisations, Director of the Centre for Learning Research, Research Director of the Centre for Learning Development and Deputy Director of the Health Services Research Unit at various UK universities.


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