AuthorGustafson, Lindsey P.

In 1979, junior faculty member Larry Michaelsen's organizational behavior course at the University of Oklahoma tripled in size--from 40 to 120 students. (1) Rather than abandon the case-based, Socratic dialogue he preferred and switch to lecturing, Professor Michaelsen created team-based learning to continue to engage students in complex, case-based problem-solving. (2) He designed team-based learning for courses like his that require students to learn a significant body of information at a deep level and to use that information in problem-solving. (3) The structure of team-based learning is especially helpful in developing students' critical, practical, and creative thinking skills. (4) Team-based learning forces students to articulate their own positions while incorporating the ideas and perspectives of others, which increases a student's ability to evaluate and synthesize ideas. (5) In its original purpose and design, therefore, team-based learning could not be more compatible with a traditional law school class.

This article reflects what we have learned since the William H. Bowen School of Law's decision in 2014 to adopt team-based learning in its first-year real property courses. (6) Since 2014, every Bowen student has learned property in a team-based learning system. We were motivated to adopt team-based learning because first, like Professor Michaelsen, we were convinced active learning would improve student learning in large classes. Robust evidence supports this claim. A 2014 meta-analysis of 225 studies of undergraduate students found that students in classes driven by lectures were 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in classes with active learning. (7) The evidence supporting team-based learning is equally compelling. A recent meta-analysis and synthesis of studies investigating the effects of team-based learning found team-based learning improves students' test performance and classroom engagement. (8) Team-based learning focuses on building a powerful learning team--a team capable of solving problems better than the most talented team members independently. (9) But the recent meta-analysis concludes team-based learning facilitated a deeper personal understanding of content, and that its structure prepared them for future assessment, such as the final exam. (10)

Second, we knew our students needed to learn, practice, and be assessed on their teamwork behavior. A national 2016 study of legal employers found that nearly three in four respondents believed it was necessary that their new hires have the ability to work collaboratively as part of a team. (11) A skill so in demand by employers should be practiced and assessed as part of our required curriculum. Team-based learning provides a combination and sequence of learning activities that encourage the formation of learning teams--rather than simply social groups--and that provide students with practice in, and feedback on, their teamwork skills. (12)

The purpose of this article is not to provide a treatise on team-based learning; those details are readily available in excellent articles, (13) books, (14) websites, (15) and even an active, enthusiastic listserv. (16) This article is a reflection on our process of implementation, and the choices (both good and bad) we have made as we have worked to make this flexible learning strategy fit the needs of our curriculum, our faculty, and most importantly, our students. Our decisions about how to best use this learning strategy have been and continue to be rooted in team-based learning's essential elements and the core components that frame the experience for our students. Our experience with team-based learning has also forced us to become more expert in learning theory, as we have worked to anticipate and manage any increased social stress team-based learning may cause students, to ensure students use their experiences in a team to improve their individual capacity, and to accurately assign grades for the property course while still motivating students to fully participate in teams.

Our own evidence that team-based learning has improved our students' learning is preliminary, but positive. In recent years, our students have scored higher on the MBE property questions relative to the national average than they have on any other tested subject. (17) Team-based learning has challenged both students and professors, but our adoption of the learning system has energized our classrooms and reinvigorated our teaching.


    Team-based learning is a flexible learning system, but decisions on what to require of students and when to require it are rooted in team-based learning's essential characteristics and expressed through its core components. Centering our decisions in these essential characteristics and core components makes it more likely we will reap the benefits of team-based learning--which include heightened intellectual energy and confident, highly functioning learning teams--while adapting to the unique needs of our environments. (18)


      Professor Michaelsen identified four principles of team-based learning essential to maximizing the evolution of student groups into cohesive learning teams: (1) teams must be properly formed and managed; (2) students must be made accountable for their individual and team work; (3) team assignments must promote both learning and team development; and (4) students must have timely and frequent feedback. (19)

      1. Teams Must Be Properly Formed and Managed

        Teams should be formed by the professor--not the students themselves--to ensure as possible that membership characteristics (like friendships or simply shared backgrounds, gender, ethnicities, race, etc.) do not interfere with the development of the group. (20) And to the extent possible, teams should have equal talent pools. (21) Achieving this balance is difficult; if students suspect a teacher has assigned students labels and distributed them by those labels to equalize the teams, students may feel like a "token" or otherwise feel minimized, (22) and the teacher's efforts to balance teams may instead discourage student participation and create early tension in teams.

        To make the process transparent, it is our experience and Professor Michaelsen's recommendation that teams should be formed in front of the students. (23) One way to publicly form teams is to announce a characteristic that may add diversity or strength to a team--such as prior work experience or educational background--and have students sort themselves in corners of the classroom. (24) For example, in property we might have students with relevant work experience (as a clerk, a realtor, a surveyor) to go to the first corner, all those who have science degrees in the second corner, those with teaching backgrounds in the third corner, and everyone else in the fourth corner. Teams are formed by having students count off, going from one corner to the next, which should ensure each team has a mix of students from each corner.

        As to the size of each team, because teams are strengthened by a diversity of skills and background, adding more students to a team will strengthen a team until the team reaches a size that allows students to hide or simply be unable to effectively contribute. Team-based learning experts agree that teams of five to seven students are ideal, and that a team of eight students is ineffective and inefficient. (25) In our experience, teams of four students typically have too few intellectual resources and perspectives to fairly compete with teams of seven students. Because of some attrition in the typical first-year class, to avoid teams of four we group students into teams of six to seven. Despite our best efforts, a few teams over the years have been reduced to four students. When this has happened, we have given team members the choice to stay in a team of four or be dispersed to other teams, and we have advised students to choose the latter. In every instance, students elected to stay with their current team of four.

        Teams are formed at the beginning of each semester, and they stay together throughout the semester to allow students to work through conflict and build a functioning learning team. (26) Changing teams before there is conflict, or worse yet when there is conflict, is "absolutely the wrong thing to do." (27) And we have had conflict. A few times we have held mediation sessions to help teams work through conflict; once, we had to remove a student from a team entirely. Almost every semester, we counsel with students who are frustrated or baffled by team members' behavior. We frequently remind students that we purposefully place them in teams to experience conflict, and working through it is an opportunity for growth and improvement. Although every semester we must counsel individuals and teams to help them work through conflict, we have not yet had a team become so dysfunctional that we needed to disband the team. (28)

      2. Students Must Be Accountable for their Individual and Team Work

        Law students are often initially unenthusiastic about having a portion of their final grades come from team work, either because they have suffered free-riders in the past or because they are unwilling to trust a portion of their grade to other students. Under the structure of team-based learning, in particular the peer review process as discussed in more detail infra, students' grades do come in part from team efforts. However, team members themselves determine how to apportion the team points, and ideally, the team interactions over a semester will build a shared dedication to the work of the team.

        Much of the accountability is created through the nature of the assignments themselves and the team unity the assignments foster. Team-based learning assignments are structured to encourage positive interdependence...

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