Patricia Hrynchak: Engaging Students Through Team-Based Learning

Patricia Hrynchak

Dr. Patricia Hrynchak, School of Optometry

Written by Elorm Agbeyaka, Special Projects (Teaching Stories), CTE

Since 2011, Dr. Patricia Hrynchak, a Clinical Professor in the School of Optometry and a recipient of that School’s 2016 Distinguished Teaching Award, has been a practitioner of a teaching method known as Team-Based Learning (TBL). Developed by Larry Michaelson for teaching business students in the 1990s, TBL is an active-learning strategy that Hrynchak describes as learner-centered but instructor-led. TBL promotes deep learning, while at the same time fostering both individual and group accountability. A typical TBL process takes about three hours and looks like this:

  1. The instructor divides the class into smaller teams of six to eight students. These teams, however, are not created at random. Instead, the instructor assesses the key characteristics of each student in the class, and then distributes the students so that the members of each team are as diverse as possible, while at the same time keeping the teams similar to one another in terms of their collective knowledge and experience. These teams persist for the duration of the course.
  2. The instructor then provides the students with a learning assignment which the students undertake individually.
  3. The students then, still as individuals, take a multiple-choice test which is called the Individual Readiness Assurance Test or IRAT. The aim of the IRAT is to get students to recall factual information from the learning assignment.
  4. Next, the students, now working as teams, take the same multiple-choice test. This step is called the Group Readiness Assurance Test, and typically each team performs better than any of the individual members of the team previously did, thanks to their ability to pool their knowledge. This step is facilitated by the use of Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique cards, better known as IF-AT cards. Students are allowed to challenge questions in writing, and each challenge is considered by the instructor, who also dispels any remaining misconceptions about the material. 
  5. The students, still in their teams, then engage in an application exercise in which they solve case-based clinical problems that draw upon the material in the original learning assignment. Every team is given the same problem, and their results are reported at the same time to the rest of the class. The problems are designed to have multiple solutions, which encourages healthy debate among the teams and is facilitated by the instructor.

Studies on TBL affirm that it results in improved student learning, but Hrynchak notes several other advantages as well. For example, before switching to TBL, Hrynchak had individual tutors working with each team – this was not only expensive but problematic because the tutors varied with regard to their teaching and assessing skills. Now, with Hrynchak as the sole facilitator of the teams, both the cost issue and the tutor-variability issue are avoided.


Hrynchak also finds that TBL diminishes what the literature calls the “social loafing phenomenon,” a situation in which some members of a team shirk their work because they don’t feel accountable to their teammates. Hrynchak has members of each team assess each other once per term by providing written feedback as well as a grade (which Hrynchak factors into their final grade for the course). Students know that if they engage in social loafing, their fellow team members will give them a low grade. 

Lastly, Hrynchak reports that her students – who number about 90 in each course – are more satisfied with TBL than with other teaching methods she has used. “Their attendance is better,” she says, “and they don’t leave the classroom after the assessed components of a class are over because they are actively engaged with the material.”

Hrynchak does admit that TBL can be onerous for the instructor: developing fresh cases is time-consuming, as is assessing the teams and incorporating the grades that they give each other into her own grading records. This is in addition to the lectures and workshops that are still part of Hrynchak’s courses.

Overall, Hrynchak’s intention with TBL is to make her students fully involved in their learning. “It’s important to adapt your teaching methods to your goals,” she explains. “My goal with teaching-based learning is to stimulate higher level thinking. You have to use different methods to achieve those goals and TBL is one of them.”

Further Resources on Team-Based Learning

Read more Teaching Stories