Practical tips and/or guidelines
Open Access

Redesigning team-based learning facilitation for an online platform to deliver preclinical curriculum: A response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Peiyan Wong[1], Muhammad Raihan Jumat[2], Irene Cheng Jie Lee[2], Ke Xiang Foo[2], Suzanne Pei Lin Goh[3], Sashikumar Ganapathy[3], Siang Hui Lai[4], Nian Chih Hwang[4]

Institution: 1. Duke-NUS Medical School; National University of Singapore, 2. Duke-NUS Medical School, 3. Duke-NUS Medical School; KK Women’s and Children Hospital, Singapore, 4. Duke-NUS Medical School; Singapore General Hospital
Corresponding Author: Dr Peiyan Wong ([email protected])
Categories: Educational Strategies, Teachers/Trainers (including Faculty Development), Teaching and Learning, Basic and Foundation Sciences, Undergraduate/Graduate
Published Date: 25/06/2020


Due to the increasing number of COVID-19 cases globally, and the need for critical containment,  Duke-NUS Medical School, Singapore, moved all of its preclinical classes online, keeping with national and university guidelines. The sudden move from face-to-face to online learning posed several challenges to the school’s team-based learning (TBL) pedagogy. In TBL, student engagement is key to promote peer-to-peer learning. The educational faculty found that it was challenging to ensure student engagement through an online platform. Additionally, online TBL is heavily dependent on the use of technology. Technological and internet connectivity issues were potential obstacles to the learning process. This manuscript proposes practical tips for a facilitator of an online TBL class to engage learners in this new format. To overcome technical complications, a dedicated centralized administrative team managed the logistics of hosting TBL online. Working synergistically, the facilitator, and the administrative team were instrumental in recreating the learning environment of a face-to-face TBL in an online platform.


Keywords: eLearning; Remote Learning; Flipped Classroom; Home-Based Learning


Due to the increasing numbers of COVID-19 infections in Singapore, alert status was escalated and all learning institutions were closed on the 3rd of April 2020 (Mohan and Abu Baker, 2020; Mohan and Ang, 2020). In order to ensure academic continuity of our preclinical curriculum, the medical educators at Duke-NUS Medical School anticipated the restrictive measures and moved the learning onto an online platform in February 2020. The preclinical curriculum, which revolves around foundational scientific understanding, is delivered through a team-based learning (TBL) pedagogy, as has been described in detail elsewhere (Michaelsen and Sweet, 2008; Parmelee et al., 2012; Sibley and Ostafichuk, 2014). In brief, a typical TBL class starts before the in-class session, with advance preparation. For the first phase of TBL, students undergo the Readiness Assurance Test on learned material. These are a set of single-best multiple-choice questions that are attempted first individually, then as a group. The Group Assurance Test (GRAT) is designed to give immediate feedback. At Duke-NUS, immediately following GRAT, students have the opportunity to post queries to the class for the facilitated discussion session. In this class activity, which we term as modified TeamLEAD Readiness Assurance Process (mTRAP) (Duke-NUS, 2011), students submit their team questions onto a common platform, and the facilitator then assigns to other teams to be answered. The facilitator moderates the class discussion, ensures high levels of engagement, and at the end of each discussion, invites the faculty to provide closure to the question (Duke-NUS, 2011; Gullo, Ha and Cook, 2015). For the second phase of TBL, the students are assessed on their ability to apply the prior knowledge and concepts that they have mastered. In this phase, students work in their teams on a set of clinical scenario-based exercises. As the responses are entered online, the faculty have access to the answers as soon as they have been submitted. This phase is concluded with an in-class facilitated discussion, where the students are required to defend their team’s answers. At an appropriate juncture, the clinical content expert closes each discussion (Duke-NUS, 2011). Alongside the facilitator is a team of administrators who manage the logistics of running a TBL module.


The rapid adaptation to online TBL uncovered several challenges to achieving the learning objectives of the preclinical phase. We faced two main obstacles when we moved the preclinical curriculum TBL classes online for our cohort of 82 students. After undergoing several iterations of online TBL, by incorporating student and faculty feedback, we came up with effective facilitation strategies that helped us overcome these challenges.


The challenges we faced during the implementation of online TBL classes

Our first challenge was the difficulty in monitoring student engagement. The face-to-face interaction, which plays a large role in allowing the facilitator to detect non-verbal cues of the entire class at a glance (Lane, 2008), is compromised in online TBL. Any online video-conferencing program has its limits on the maximum number of participants that could be viewed on a single screen, and we were unable to see the whole class at a glance. Even if the student is visible on the video-conferencing program, the ability to determine the student’s focused attention and full engagement remained elusive. This potentially undermines the interactive dynamics that is crucial for TBL. The lack of clear visibility on students’ learning behaviour could also challenge faculty’s ability to monitor student’s well-being and professionalism.


Our second challenge was that internet connectivity and technological literacy problems hindered smooth implementation of online TBL. Online TBL is heavily dependent on the use of multiple technologies and platforms. These include video-conferencing tools, test-taking platforms and a live shared document for students to discuss pertinent topics to the session.  Participants (students and faculty) are expected to have a degree of proficiency in the use of these platforms. The rapid transitioning to online learning made it difficult to ensure all participants were fully prepared beforehand. Being forced to engage remotely, it was difficult for participants to receive the technical assistance that they would otherwise receive in person.


Effective facilitation practices to ensure student engagement during online TBL

We adopted several different strategies to enhance the dynamism and sustain the engagement of students in online TBL sessions. Many of these revolved around consciously maintaining open forms of communication between the students and the faculty, and are as follows:


  1. We would communicate the sequence of events and the facilitation strategy to our students and faculty at the beginning of every facilitated discussion session. This allowed the participants to mentally prepare for each phase of the discussion. Priority and extra time would be allocated to questions that were poorly attempted, as well as to topics corresponding to critical learning points (Gullo, Ha and Cook, 2015).
  2. We asked that the participants be video-enabled during the facilitated session. We used video as the preferred mode of communication for online TBL, because being able to see each other’s facial expressions and body language made the online discussion more dynamic for participants.  
  3. We prioritized the video discussion over private communications. We found that the multiple modes of communication, which are available within a single video-conferencing platform, drew attention away from the ongoing video discussion. Hence, to ensure a common learning experience, we start each facilitated discussion session with a reminder to students that private communications with the faculty were not allowed. All communications had to be made publicly.
  4. We were able to promote peer-to-peer learning through the selective use of shared, live documents, and the ‘entire room’ chat function during the facilitated session. During the first phase of TBL, we used a shared, live Microsoft® Excel spreadsheet for the mTRAP process. This allowed students and faculty to see the questions and answers in real-time, which helped to promote interaction, albeit virtually. During the facilitated discussion sessions, even though we encouraged most discussions to take place over video, we allowed the students to use the ‘entire room’ chat function. This is because we recognised that the lag time from a ‘raised hand’ to being called upon in the artificially enforced, sequential nature of an online discussion was frustrating for students. Hence the use of the ‘entire room’ chat, when done sparingly, provides the students an outlet to voice their immediate thoughts, and simulates the dynamic nature of a face-to-face discussion. However, care has to be taken to ensure that the attention of the students is still focused on the ongoing video discussion. The use of the live document and the chat room enhanced the peer-to-peer learning nature of TBL in an online session, because students could read and answer the queries posted by their peers. The facilitator would then incorporate these points into the ongoing video discussion. The combination of the video-conferencing tool and the live shared document to aid the production of logical mental constructs and to enhance the learning experience, illustrate the cognitive theory of multimedia learning (Mayer, 1997).
  5. We held students accountable for their learning. To ensure that students were constantly engaged, the facilitator, using the name list at hand, would randomly call upon any student to respond or defend their team’s answer. This was one way to ensure that the students kept up with the discussion and that peer learning had occurred within the team. As we were cognizant that the students were not able to call upon their team-mates for help, we exercised patience and worked to established a secure, yet stimulating learning environment, where students felt safe to discuss questions and explore ideas (Michaelsen and Sweet, 2008; Gullo, Ha and Cook, 2015).
  6. The facilitation process was deliberate and we consciously practiced active listening (Lane, 2008; Silberman and Biech, 2015). In general, the pace of facilitation for an online TBL session had to be slower than for a face-to-face TBL session. In a face-to-face TBL session, the facilitators could get hints from the students’ non-verbal cues on whether they were keeping up with the discussion. As this was not easily achieved in an online environment, we had to periodically check-in with the students to ensure that their queries were adequately addressed. We made sure to give students extended time to respond and acknowledged their responses before moving on.
  7. We made sure that the students and faculty were heard. To increase the students’ and faculty buy-in for online TBL, we sought for feedback after each TBL session. In the subsequent TBL sessions, the facilitators will give a quick briefing on the important points that were noted. These feedback, especially during the implementation, were crucial in identifying pitfalls and strengths of the approaches employed (Michaelsen and Sweet, 2008).
  8. We would check in on the mental well-being of our students. Given that anxiety and uncertainty mount with students confined in a socially distanced learning environment, the mental well-being of students could be compromised (Huremović, 2019), which in turn affects their learning. Studies have shown that online interactions with known contacts, may alleviate the social withdrawal symptoms of those in quarantine or forced isolation (Pancani et al., 2020; Waytz and Gray, 2018). As such, even though ensuring the mental well-being of our students is not a traditional role of the facilitator, we found ourselves in a good position to take this on because we were in frequent and regular communication with the students. In our online sessions, we would reach out to students privately, to see if they were coping well. Further information was then fed-forward to our academic coaching programme and student affairs department. A collaborative approach between facilitators/faculty and academic coaching team help to keep students motivated during these challenging times.


Effective ways to provide support for the internet connection and technological challenges faced during online TBL classes

At Duke-NUS, we are fortunate to have a dedicated, centralized administrative team to manage the logistics of running a TBL course. This team was instrumental in the transition and implementation of online TBL. In institutions where such support is unavailable, we suggest that there should be a co-host for each facilitated discussion, who can help troubleshoot any technical issues that the students or teaching faculty may face. This will relieve the facilitator from administrative responsibilities and allow them to fully engage the students in learning. Here are the measures that we adopted to help mitigate the internet connectivity and technological issues:


  1. All participants received training in order to become proficient in the use of the online platforms. Prior to the online session, the administrative team carried out training sessions for all the participants; the students, facilitators and clinical teaching faculty, on the use of the various online platforms. Being familiar with the video-conferencing software helped ensure that the facilitated discussion went smoothly, and that participants were able to use the various response functions for more effective online communication.
  2. There were backup plans in place for when the online platforms were not accessible. Getting access to the online platforms was challenging for faculty who were participating from their host institutions that had internet separation (MOH, 2018). The administrative team served as the conduit between the faculty who did not have access to the shared online document. Students who had connection issues were supported by the administrative team through telephone or e-mail.

What we learnt

We found that on the whole, the facilitation practices for face-to-face and online discussions have large overlaps. However, an online facilitation requires deliberate adjustments, with the added dimensions of technical and logistical demands of online learning. These adjustments which include the training of faculty, use of multiple screens, and having a co-host, can be implemented to make facilitation easier. With careful facilitator chaperoning, by using clear and open communication, coupled with effective administrative support, we found that peer-to-peer learning could still occur through an online medium.

Take Home Messages

Student engagement, which is key in TBL, is difficult to gauge an online format due to the inability to read non-verbal cues. Effective strategies that can be used to ensure effective peer-to-peer learning through an online medium include:

  • Clear and open communication between faculty and students.
  • Asking all participants to be video-enabled and for most discussion to take place in the main video-conferencing room.
  • Using live, shared and interactive documents to disseminate information.
  • Deliberate and slower pace of facilitation.
  • Seeking feedback from all participants to improve the processes in ‘real-time’ and improve student buy-in.

Internet connectivity and technological issues can be overcome with training of participants and having backup plans in place.

Notes On Contributors

Peiyan Wong is the facilitator of Phase I (preclinical phase), Office of Education, Duke-NUS Medical School, and an Assistant Professor in the Neuroscience and Behavioural Disorders Program, Duke-NUS Medical School and Department of Pharmacology, National University of Singapore; ORCID ID:


Muhammad Raihan Jumat is a Basic Science Education Fellow, Office of Education, Duke-NUS Medical School; ORCID ID:


Irene Cheng Jie Lee is an Assistant Professor, Office of Education, Duke-NUS Medical School; ORCID ID:


Ke Xiang Foo is an Assistant Manager of MD Programme Administrative Team, Office of Education, Duke-NUS Medical School.


Suzanne Pei Lin Goh is Associate Dean of Student Affairs, and facilitator for Body and Disease Course, Office of Education, Duke-NUS Medical School.


Sashikumar Ganapathy is an Assistant Dean, Clinical Integration, Office of Education, Duke-NUS Medical School and Deputy Head & Consultant, Emergency Medicine, KKH, Singapore; ORCID ID:


Siang Hui Lai is a Senior Consultant with the Department of Anatomical Pathology, Singapore General Hospital, Editor of Proceedings of Singapore Healthcare, SingHealth, Academic Vice Chair (Education), Pathology Academic Clinical Programme, SingHealth Duke-NUS AMC, and Associate Professor and Associate Dean, Office of Education, Duke-NUS Medical School.


Nian Chih Hwang is a Senior Consultant Anaesthesiologist with Singapore General Hospital and National Heart Centre, Singapore, and the Course Director of Body and Disease, Office of Education, Duke-NUS Medical School; ORCID ID:


The authors would like to thank the members of the MD Programme Administrative Team for their efforts in transitioning and maintaining TBL online. The authors also thank the clinical faculty of the Body and Disease course and the Phase 1 students of the class of 2023, who provided invaluable input to improve the process.


Duke-NUS. (2011) TeamLEAD at Duke-NUS [Video]. Available at: (Accessed: 15 May 2020).


Gullo, C., Ha, T. C. and Cook, S. (2015) 'Twelve tips for facilitating team-based learning', Medical Teacher, 37(9), pp. 819-824.


Huremović, D. (2019) 'Mental Health of Quarantine and Isolation', in Huremović, D. (ed.) Psychiatry of Pandemics: A Mental Health Response to Infection Outbreak.  Cham: Springer International Publishing,  pp. 95-118.


Lane, D. R. (2008) 'Teaching skills for facilitating team‐based learning', New Directions for Teaching and Learning, (116), pp. 55-68.


Mayer, R. E. (1997) 'Multimedia learning: Are we asking the right questions?', Educational Psychologist, 32(1), pp. 1-19.


Michaelsen, L. K. and Sweet, M. (2008) 'The essential elements of team‐based learning', New Directions for Teaching and Learning, (116), pp. 7-27.


MOH. (2018) Ministry of Health, Singapore 'Temporary Internet Surfacing Separation Implemented At All Public Healthcare Clusters'. 23rd July 2018. Available at: (Accessed: 15 May 2020).


Mohan, M. and Abu Baker, J. (2020) 'Coronavirus outbreak: Singapore raises DORSCON level to Orange; schools to suspend inter-school, external activities', Channel News Asia. [Online] Available at: (Accessed: 6 April 2020).


Mohan, M. and Ang, H. M. (2020) 'COVID-19: Singapore makes 'decisive move' to close most workplaces and impose full home-based learning for schools, says PM Lee', Channel News Asia. [Online] Available at: (Accessed: 11 April 2020).


Pancani, L., Marinucci, M., Aureli, N. and Riva, P. (2020) 'Forced social isolation and mental health: A study on 1006 Italians under COVID-19 lockdown', PsyArXiv Preprints. 


Parmelee, D., Michaelsen, L., Cook, S. and Hudes, P. (2012) 'Team-based learning: A practical guide: AMEE Guide No. 65', Medical Teacher, 34, pp. e275-87.


Sibley, J., Ostafichuk, P. (2014) Getting started with team-based learning. First edition. edn. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing.


Silberman, M. L. and Biech, E. (2015) Active training: A handbook of techniques, designs, case examples, and tips. John Wiley & Sons.


Waytz, A. and Gray, K. (2018) 'Does online technology make us more or less sociable? A preliminary review and call for research', Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(4), pp. 473-491.




There are no conflicts of interest.
This has been published under Creative Commons "CC BY-SA 4.0" (

Ethics Statement

Since no personal information was collected, ethical approval was not required for this manuscript.

External Funding

This article has not had any External Funding


Please Login or Register an Account before submitting a Review

mariam asaad amin ibrahim - (01/07/2020)
Very informative and detailed
Thank you
Subha Ramani - (26/06/2020) Panel Member Icon
Thank you for the opportunity to read and review this manuscript. The authors have systematically described best practices for a TBL curriculum that was delivered online due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The need for the innovation is sound, description of the intervention is clearly written such that others can adopt and adopt these best practices. The authors have also categorized the article under challenges, best practices for facilitation and how support was provided for teachers and learners.
The manuscript is well written, well referenced and has clarity.
I would have liked to have seen the following:
(1) How faculty development was provided
(2) How buy-in from teachers and learners was ensured. Was there a needs assessment, did they confer with these stakeholders?
(3) A brief description of the impact of this curriculum- 2 levels of Kirkpatrick (reaction and knowledge) could have been evaluated briefly. I understand the transition was rapid, unexpected and has not been rolled out for very long.
With these details and perhaps a theoretical underpinning of the benefits of TBL would make this a high quality scholarly manuscript.
In its current form, it is a very good faculty development resource and informs other educators engaged in TBL courses about challenges and best practices.
Hebat Allah A. Amin - (25/06/2020)
An important, informative experience for adopting online TBL using the official LMS.
The challenge of students' engagement is the same all over the world.
In our institution we adopted online TBL in a class of about 900 students.
But we decided a different approach. As we stuck to our national official LMS for only the educational materials and processes with copyright requiring high degrees of security and used the commercial, free, available platforms in a portfolio of tools to provide a high degree of accessibility.
We used the zoom with the breakout rooms to divide the students into teams of nine with the facilitator navigating throughout the rooms.
This approach ensured the students' engagement and a close supervision.
I greatly appreciate the opportunity for reading your experience.
Our contribution is attached below.
I hope to read more experiences from your renowned Institute.

Dalia A. Gaber Mohamed Hany Shehata Hebat Allah A. Amin. (2020).
Online team‐based learning sessions as interactive methodologies during the pandemic. Medical Education. Volume 54, Issue 7. First published:26 April 2020
P Ravi Shankar - (25/06/2020) Panel Member Icon
This is an interesting article on team-based learning and the rapid changes which had to be undertaken while shifting TBL to an online mode during the COVID-19 pandemic. The authors provide tips which would be useful to educators in other settings. Singapore being a developed high-income country some of the author’s suggestions may need to be modified while applying them to resource limited settings. The major challenge in online learning is keeping the student engaged and focused. There are a number of challenges in achieving this as has been mentioned in this and other studies. Another challenge for the teacher/facilitator during online delivery is gauging the involvement of students. TBL incorporates certain elements like the readiness assurance tests and involvement in a group which encourages attention and participation. The article will be of broad interest with the increasing adoption of TBL as a learning method.