Communication Currents

Group of students talking

Instructor’s Corner: Team-based Learning for Basic Communication Courses

August 1, 2016
Instructional Communication

The basic Communication course is the “foundation and most enduring educational feature of the communication discipline,” writes Luke LeFebvreTexas Tech University. But, he observes, the course remains virtually unchanged from when the discipline was first established. In a recent essay, LeFebvre proposes team-based learning as an instructional method to advance the basic course in Communication.  

Team-based learning (TBL) is an instructional method that harnesses small-group communication, organizes a specific sequence of individual and group work, and provides immediate feedback and accountability for the student. This method differs from the traditional pedagogy of the basic course in that students come to class prepared to apply course concepts to the course-related content of public speaking. According to LeFebvre the TBL approach “supports and strengthens the democratic focus of the general education requirement and the development of communication skills at multiple levels simultaneously (interpersonal, team, and public) while still fulfilling (potentially enhancing) the primary learning outcomes.”

The purpose of general education is to prepare students to be democratic citizens of society. The basic course in Communication helps students do that by teaching them the principles of public speaking, which they can use to speak competently in public and make contributions to the greater social good.

Four Essential Elements of Team-based Learning 

The idea of TBL originated with Larry Michaelson in the late 1970s. With this approach, students are responsible for their own learning and the learning of their peers. TBL is a specific instructional strategy, not a series of independent group activities, and it revolves around the development of teams (which are a social unit distinct from groups). When implementing TBL, the basic course becomes an opportunity for deliberation and participation that prepares students to take part in future forums.

TBL and the basic Communication course together put the processes of communication into action. The four essential elements of TBL are properly formed teams; the use of the Readiness Assurance Process; Application Activities in the form of workshops; and peer review for accountability.

Teams. In the workplace, people are often working in teams to accomplish tasks. Teams are coordinated groups that are organized to work together to achieve a goal. With TBL, teachers should form the teams to ensure optimum learning conditions. This means distributing students who have different levels of public speaking anxiety (PSA) across the teams. This can be determined by using a scale for the assessment of PSA. Each team should have between five and seven members, and teams should remain the same throughout the term. This guarantees that teams are large enough for students to manage the complex tasks presented as part of the course and that team members have time to build trust with one another.

Once levels of PSA have been determined, line up students using the number from the PSA instrument, largest to smallest. The instructor should determine how many people are enrolled in the course and how many teams are needed. Have students count off from the start of the line to the end of the line (1, 2, 3, 4…) and group teams into ones, twos, threes, and fours. The team members should introduce themselves, exchange contact information, and determine a team name. Provide each team with folders that are preloaded with course materials.

Readiness Assurance Process (RAP).This is a multi-stage method to make sure students walk away from the class with the foundational knowledge they need. RAP flips the classroom, which minimizes the time students spend listening and increases active learning. RAP for the basic Communication course has four, 10-question multiple choice tests, which measure knowledge while avoiding over-testing. Students are also assigned pre-class readings or other preparatory materials, which range from 30 to 60 pages and are not overly verbose or difficult to read. Students also will complete an individual readiness assurance test (or iRAT), which confirms that students read the material before class and ensures individual accountability for class material. The RAP also includes the Team Readiness Assurance Test (tRAT), which begins immediately after the iRAT. Students turn in their iRAT, keep the multiple choice question sheet, and move into their groups. The same questions are used for the iRAT and the tRAT. Then teams identify three questions that need further clarification during a debrief with the instructor.

Application Activities.These activities are where the most impactful, high-level learning occurs. Exercises take place in class and require students to apply their knowledge, skills, and judgment to a structured activity. LeFebvre suggests that while informational and persuasive speeches need to be done individually in public speaking class, preparation for such speeches does not need to happen in isolation. He recommends having students discuss content preparation in a team setting to produce more powerful, audience-centric speeches. Another activity involves a speaker notes workshop, where students deliver a portion of their speech to practice extemporaneous speaking with classmates.

Peer Evaluation. Peer evaluations for accountability are an important last step. Students are developing a team bond and an interest in their team pursuits. They are responsible not only for their individual performance, but also for team performance and their own contributions to the team. These behaviors are assessed by other team members. This includes a midpoint and end-of-term evaluation.


The basic Communication course has remained stagnant for more than 50 years. However, LeFebvre argues, TBL can eliminate many of the contemporary challenges facing course instructors. Infusing TBL into the basic course can help public speaking classes become more dynamic while providing a more proactive feedback process. To advance the discipline, instructors must move beyond the traditional and begin to implement innovation for teaching the basic course.  “I believe TBL is an initial, and promising, step to transform our basic communication course,” writes LeFebvre. 

About the author (s)

Luke LeFebvre

Texas Tech University