Implementing Effective Team-based Learning in Various Environments

Dr. Robert Smart is a management professor who teaches several leadership courses in the School of Business, one being Managing Teams. His research interests are teamwork, organizational change, university-industry partnerships and work-life balance. In addition to teaching, Robert is also an assistant coach for the Carleton Ravens basketball team, where he employs several team-based learning techniques. The Carleton Ravens basketball team is considered one of the most successful collegiate basketball teams in North America, having won 13 of the past 15 national championships.

His experience in academia and in athletic environments has cultivated an effective teaching strategy that allows his students and players to improve their knowledge creation, retention and application while building integral social and teamwork skills. Robert is an advocate for team-based learning and his success in both academic and athletic environments can be attributed to this powerful pedagogy.

What is team-based learning (TBL)?

TBL is an instructional method that puts students into roles of greater autonomy and responsibility for their learning. TBL emerged out of research in organizational and cognitive psychology.

The Critical Components are:

  • Student groups are permanent for the entire semester. Groups need time together to learn to function as a team, hence the use of permanently assigned groups.
  • Each student has a responsibility to contribute & is assessed independently. The assessment process has to be defined and explained to the students.
  • Assignments are such that require students to work collectively by applying course content to find a collective solution to a significant problem.

TBL derived from group-based learning but the difference and advantage of TBL is that teams share a purpose and sense of collective responsibility. Groups evolve into teams when an instructor creates the proper conditions for effective collaboration. Well-designed tasks plus strategic course design are essential to create the conditions where members learn to listen to one another, value each other's contributions, learn from mistakes, reign in ineffective behavior, and eventually trust in the team's ability to outperform any given individual. As such, the TBL process increases the amount of peer-to-peer interactions and students learn better as they feel motivated due to the frequent and immediate feedback they get from their team.

What interested you in team-based learning? What is it about the team environment that piqued your interest?
The whole reason why [team-based learning] works is it’s an effective and affordable way of training people. We are social learners. Social learning is just so huge. For example, the first time you hop on the first level of education where you’re the junior and you see that the other people know a lot, it just opens your eyes. It’s amazing to see the impact on students when they look at other responses and compare them to their own. That’s why I like it and I think I will continue to use it and refine it for the Managing Teams class. Also, once you know what other people know, it opens up lines of communication. If I know that you’re just incredible, I’m going to ask you questions and you’ll speak and I’ll listen. The opportunity for social learning is there. You need that engagement and you need to get students to interact to learn.
Prior to shifting to online learning, how challenging was it, especially for your Teams class, to implement team-based learning and achieve the outcomes you’re seeing with Kritik?
In other courses where I had group projects, it’s tough. You always have a certain percentage of students who would just prefer doing the assignments on their own. The big thing is that you have to set up the assignments in a way that rewards them for creativity and for taking chances. If it is just the standard assignment that the students could do on their own, you’re going to get some pushback and you have to be careful.
Outside of Kritik, have you used any type of technology to effectively integrate team-based learning?
We have document-sharing websites but I haven’t found that as great. It’s mostly through Zoom with shared sessions. We do basketball sessions where our students are collaborating with students out there [on the court] and the coach is walking our students around on iPads in the middle of practice and they have to design programs of the court and on the court. But it is just all about raising the level of interaction and engagement rate and trying to be creative. Kritik was also a big part of how I tried to get them to work together… the students are liking it. 
What is one lesson or experience on team-based learning you learned from your basketball team that you implemented in academic environments and vice versa?
The big thing about it is being humble. Where teams start steering in the wrong direction in terms of collaboration is when you’re not humble. When you’re not curious, when you become the ‘know-it-all’, and when you can point to your success in the past and shoot somebody’s good idea down, you know you’re in a bad spot. You should never allow that to happen. If you do, you’re not going to be fun to work with and people are not going to work with you. When it comes to working with people, it’s all about ‘right now’. Every team is different, every class is different, every new partnership and collaboration is different and you can’t just think about past successes. 
From school to basketball, one of the things that I really like about my academics is the importance of the fundamental framework of looking at things. I like to implement that in sports [as it] can be results-end oriented. In terms of an academic perspective, you have to know the basics and the fundamental theories. If you don’t have a good view and if you’re conceptual toolbox is limited, when your environment changes, you’re not going to succeed.

Dr. Robert Smart
Dr. Robert Smart
Carleton University
Management Professor & Associate Basketball Coach

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