Applying Principles of Team-Based Learning to the EAP Classroom


By Amber Shaw

[This article was first printed in the Winter 2016 issue of TEAL News.]

When looking to push into new transformative teaching experiences, a good conference is always a sound place to start. I was very fortunate to be able to attend the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) conference this past summer in Vancouver. The theme of the conference was “Achieving Harmony: Tuning into Practice.” My biggest take-away was the realization that in order to have more transformative experiences for myself and for my students, I need to purposefully create those opportunities for transformation.

There are many things that get in the way of me creating these opportunities though. True transformative experiences usually involve a certain amount of risk. I had to ask myself: How much risk am I willing to take as an instructor? How much risk is my institution willing to take? What about the students? In the end, I decided to face my fears and try something new.

Background: General Information about Team-Based Learning (TBL) can be found at the Team-Based Learning Collaborative (2013). I became interested in TBL after going to a STLHE workshop by Jim Sibley and Ernesto Ocampo Edye entitled “Team work that works: An introduction to team-based learning”. I left wanting to give TBL a try in my English for Academic Purposes (EAP) setting. I was particularly interested in the larger group work model used in TBL, which uses groups of between five to seven students (Sibley et al., 2014). My students are all taking first year university classes with integrated EAP courses as part of their first year program. Each class has approximately 25 students and meets for 50 minute weekly blocks.

Risk Taken: The incorporation of some of the principles of TBL into one of my courses involved risk. This risk included getting over the fear of using permanent large groups instead of rotating small groups in my class. Small group work has always been a part of my classroom, and I was unsure about switching to this new model.

Requirements: The addition of a new learning outcome to my class was a requirement. The additional learning outcome was framed as the course helping students to learn through intercultural group work and communication. This new approach also required fronting a lot of the prep work for the semester. Planning and organization was critical, and in the end, was well worth it. I also had the support of my director and colleagues.

Transformations: The use of large groups created mini-classrooms with dedicated leaders and assigned student roles. Students took control of their own learning, and most of the groups monitored their own behaviours, deadlines, and progress. Overall, students used English more often than in my traditional small group activities. As diversity was built into the large groups, English became the common communication tool necessary to complete the assignments.

Payoffs and Advantages: Using TBL groups allowed me to give more formative feedback to a large number of students. I also seemed to learn the students’ names faster as I interacted with them in their stable teams. Another advantage was being able to ensure that there was more linguistic diversity within each group than I was previously able to accomplish with the use of small groups.

Disadvantages: The only disadvantage I can identify is having to move the classroom tables into group configurations, which can take a couple of minutes of class time. However, after the first few classes, the students got faster at helping to move the tables at the beginning and end of class.

What I would do differently next time: I would spend more time introducing the importance of the new group work learning outcome. I would also make the groups spend more time and effort selecting an appropriate group name that reflects their identity as a learning community.

Reflection: This was definitely the epitome of me “doing something different” by allowing students to take control of their own learning. Students took the group assignment quite seriously. Many of the groups set up Facebook pages, booked meeting rooms and had meetings outside of class time. They also utilized many of the online tools available to them through our university’s online learning system. Having four groups of six to seven students each, created cooperative learning spaces within each group while still producing a competitive atmosphere overall between the groups. This seems to have motivated more students early on. Some of the groups that I worried about the most, in the end had the most success, as early setbacks seemed to have driven the groups to succeed.

Unexpected Issues: Even though most of the students were very good at utilizing social media to complete their group tasks, there were many groups that struggled with basic technology and information literacy skills. This was the first time I had realized that students half my age were not necessarily as tech savvy as I am. My own technology literacy has been a new fear for me in the past five years as I continue to age, while the students stay 19 forever. While I was troubled to see some of the students struggling with basic technology skills, I have to admit that I felt more empowered to integrate a scaffolding of these skills into the assignments.

Conclusions: I found the application of many of the principles of TBL for language learning quite successful. It allowed for more scaffolding, tasked based learning, and improved motivation and student buy-in. While I have not applied all of the principles of TBL to my classroom, I will continue to expand this model in the coming semesters. I am also curious to know what other instructors’ experiences are with using TBL in a language learning classroom.


Sibley, J. & Ocampo Edye, E. (2015, June). Team Work that Works: An Introduction to team-based learning. Workshop presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Teachingand Learning in Higher Education, Vancouver, B.C.

Sibley, J., Ostafichuk, P., Roberson, W. E., Franchini, B., Kubitz, K. A., & Michaelsen, L. K. (2014). Getting started with team-based learning (First ed.). Sterling, Virginia: Stylus.

Team-Based Learning Collaborative. (2013). Retrieved from

Biographical Information

From the Winter 2016 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter:  Amber Shaw holds a Master of Arts in Applied Linguistics from Old Dominion University. She has spent the last eleven years teaching EAP, TESOL, and Linguistics. She teaches in the Academic English Program at UBC Vantage College in Vancouver, British Columbia.


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Original reference information:

Shaw, A. (2016, Winter). Applying Principles of Team-Based Learning to the EAP Classroom. TEAL News. Retrieved from