Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Engage Your Students in 60 Seconds or Less

By Lew Ludwig (Editor-in-Chief), Denison University

Ever feel like the teacher from the movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off,” asking a question and just getting silence back? We’ve all had those moments in the classroom. You pose a well-crafted question to the class, and no one responds.

 Several years ago, I watched Dr. Michael Starbird of the University of Texas – Austin employ a simple technique that has forever changed my own teaching. After you pose your question to the class, pause, then state a slightly rephrased version of the same question. After this, ask your students to take two minutes to discuss with a nearby neighbor.

I saw Dr. Starbird use this technique at a national convention with 300 attendees in the room. After two minutes, the room of strangers was vibrating with engaging discussion. Dr. Starbird could then point to a person and ask, “What did your neighbor say?” Not only did this technique prompt active discussion and engagement, but avoids the risk of embarrassment when putting someone on the spot.

For those familiar with this technique, it is a variation on the Think-Pair-Share model that can help learners of all ages. In this method, the students might first reflect individually on a question, maybe for several minutes writing notes or solving a math problem (Think). Next, the students would turn to a nearby neighbor to discuss their work (Pair). Finally, the instructor calls on students to report (Share).

I have slightly modified this technique to assure a varied discussion: every week I randomly assign students to a pair. These pairs have to physically sit next to each other for that week. When I ask the class to discuss something with a neighbor, they know exactly where to turn.

Does it work? First, the weekly pairing creates a notable community within the classroom as students get to better know each other over the course of the semester. This is very apparent by mid-semester when I walk into the classroom to see students actually chatting with one another as opposed to being absorbed in their own thoughts. Second, students often highlight this technique in the course evaluations. They appreciate the opportunity to test out ideas in a low-stakes environment. Lastly, the class discussion is much richer. Since we have a variety of ideas and viewpoints being shared, the discussion goes much deeper and broader than when only one student answers my well-crafted question.

The “talk to a neighbor” technique is extremely easy to employ, and the time required is very flexible. Sometimes I will give them as little as 30 seconds to compare ideas while longer exercises might call for as much as ten minutes. I circulate the room nudging discussions and gauging understanding. In a given 50-minute class period I use this technique three to ten times, depending on the topic and the mood of the class. I highly recommend you give it a try in your next class. You will be amazed at how quickly your students catch on and become engaged in their learning.

Recommended app: Poll Everywhere

This semester, Teaching Tidbits will focus on useful and engaging apps. A helpful app for the "talk to your neighbor” technique is Poll Everywhere. Give students a link to respond to your question in the app via mobile phone, Twitter, or web browser. Responses are posted online or in a Powerpoint presentation.

This app has many of the same advantages of "talk to your neighbor" but functions more like a clicker system because students can provide their responses anonymously. This makes it a valuable tool for formative assessment and quick checks on difficulty level, pacing and retention.

The free version allows for up to 40 users with a variety of question types and displays. Upgrades allow for more users and additional reporting and tracking options.

Pose a question, visualize responses via Poll Everywhere, and let the discussions begin!

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