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Think-Pair-Share

In this post:

Using Think-Pair-Share to stimulate student interactions, explored as both an in-class activity as well as translated into synchronous and asynchronous distance-learning platforms.

Introduction:

Today's post features the ever-popular THINK-PAIR-SHARE activity, a favorite go-to for the active learning crowd.


While we continue to face the challenges of teaching amidst a global pandemic, whether our fall courses move off-campus and on-line or whether we teach in-person to students who are both present and not, we are likely seeking new ways to foster the kind of learning and social communities that invigorate higher education.

This spring, we actually had some minor advantages. We could capitalize on a communal vibe already established in classroom spaces, riding that energy—as much as possible given the shared state of trauma—into May or June. We were in "emergency" mode, with few expectations. But now, students and instructors have adjusted to a new normal. Now, we'll be expected to have a firmer grasp of what "online education" means for our courses.


Now, we’ll be starting apart, together.

Given these parameters, how can we promote a sense of community, collective engagement, and, most of all, conversation?

In this post, I examine a familiar in-class activity that I use to encourage communication among students. I suggest ways to translate those exercises to digital platforms, considering both synchronous video sessions and asynchronous approaches.


Discussions at a Distance: Think-Pair-Share

The best part of this simple exercise is that its three-part structure is right there in the name.


First, students THINK about something that you, the instructor, pose to them. Then, they PAIR with a classmate to discuss ideas before returning to SHARE takeaways with the class as a whole.

THINK-PAIR-SHARE (TPS) can take as little as 5 minutes or as long as an entire class period. It can also be done entirely impromptu! As a no-fuss, no-prep trick, TPS is a great one to keep in your back pocket. It also has the benefit of being applicable in both small seminars and large lecture settings, making it a wonderfully flexible pedagogical tool.


TPS as an In-Class Activity:

As an in-person exercise, I apply THINK-PAIR-SHARE in various scenarios. Sometimes, I pose an explicit open-ended question. Other times, I embrace a lull and ask students to pause to reflect on something they’re struggling over. I also have students read passages and reflect independently on specific questions before turning to their peers.


Here's a general outline of how TPS manifests in the face-to-face classroom:

THINK

  • Instructor poses a question or makes a statement they'd like students to ponder. Alternatively, a passage or quote is provided as the basis for analysis and reflection.

  • Provide students 2-3 minutes to write silently on their own. Active writing, rather than just general "thinking," can help to improve retrieval and engagement.

  • Direct students explicitly to make notes on a book, blank paper, handout, etc.

  • Here, the intention is to allow students to take a step back and process on their own, and hopefully to dump what’s in their brains externally so they can better examine it.

  • Sidebar: If we’re working on essay drafts, the THINK portion can also be used as a 10-minute free-write where students brainstorm their paper topics or answer a series of prompting questions to help them articulate their arguments.

PAIR

  • Students PAIR with a classmate to discuss ideas in small units.

  • Sometimes, I give guidance, other times I leave the conversations open-ended. Guidance might include some kind of structure for listening and responding, such as asking the "listening" student to repeat what they heard from their peer (i.e., summarize the other person's viewpoint) and then articulate their response directly ("I agree with X…"; "I disagree with Y…")

  • Because students are given an opportunity to think in two frameworks, first independently and then with a partner, students often return to the larger conversation re-invigorated and tend to be more willing to express their thoughts at that point.

SHARE

  • Come back to the lecture or seminar format at large. Ask for participants to SHARE comments from the paired discussions.

  • You might even prompt students to share another person's ideas. That way, the activity feels lower-stakes (it's not their own ideas they have to explain) with the pedagogical bonus of challenging students to comprehend and rehearse another viewpoint.

However...

All of this wonderfully generative collaborative energy depends upon having bodies in the same space—bodies who can sit within 6 feet of each other. So… Let’s consider how this might look in September.



TPS as a Synchronous Online Activity:

If you're using virtual video conferencing meetings for your class sessions (via Zoom, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, etc.), TPS can be introduced with a bit of inventive tweaking. [Since my own experience so far has been with Zoom, I'll discuss features of that platform.]

Here are options for each of the 3 TPS segments:

THINK

  • Students turn off video feeds (placing themselves on “mute”) and spend 5 minutes writing and thinking on their own. This provides a nice break from screen-staring.

  • Students grab a notepad and write for 3 minutes while remaining onscreen.

  • Students mute video feeds and type for 5 minutes onto a computer document.

  • More simply, conversation is paused for 2 minutes of silent time, allowing students to reflect prior to being asked to comment.

Note: A combination of these offerings might be used to allow students maximum flexibility and to provide multiple modes of access—hand-writing, typing, muted or not, etc.


PAIR

  • Paired Breakout Rooms: Place two students in each Breakout Room and ask them to hold brief 5-minute conversations with their classmate. [Schedule 10+ minutes*]

  • Group Breakout Rooms: Have students each generate a question from their THINK session, then PAIR students into Breakout Rooms of 4 members for a slightly longer session, perhaps 10-15 minutes. Ask each member to take a turn posing their question to the group, followed by brief discussion. [Schedule 20+ minutes*]

  • Private Chat/Direct Messages: Ask students to use a messaging system, such as the “private” chat function in Zoom, to conduct a text-based chat with one other person for 5 minutes. [Schedule 10+ minutes**]

  • Group Chat: Ask students to send one synopsis sentence generated from their THINK session to the Chat or Messaging function of the application that you’re using, posting it for everyone to view. Then, ask each student to select a classmate’s sentence and conduct another 2-3 minute reflection on that point. [Schedule 10+ minutes**]

*Note: Since there can be more of a social barrier with video chatting than might be encountered in a classroom, where students often become familiar to the setting and comfortable with who their neighbors are, etc., I would suggest leaving even more time than you think should be necessary for any step of TPS.


If using video breakout rooms, for example, allow in your timing estimations for several minutes during which students may need to adjust to the new "space" and environment, greet one another, etc. Assume they could also benefit from extra "chat" time as well, creating connections from across time zones, countries, and continents, even when it has nothing to do with course content.


**Note #2: In the same way that some students will be more comfortable speaking verbally in a class session, whether in person or via Zoom, some students will be far more comfortable typing in a speedy setting than others. Again, leave ample time for these conversations so that students who may be less accustomed to typed chat interactions can have an opportunity to engage with their peers.


I'd suggest alternating throughout the semester between audio, video, and text-based TPS, giving ample variations to allow students to find what works best for them.


SHARE

  • Solicit a report from one member of each pair or group to summarize their discussion.

  • Ask students to share one point that a member of their PAIR session made (again, removing pressure of it being their “own” idea).

  • Choose 5 students at random to explain ideas shared by their groups.

  • Or, open back up to general discussion right away.

  • You might also ask students to record their PAIR input on a shared Google Drive Document, and then you, the instructor, can review the group notes while students take a brief break (again, a much-needed respite if they've had a full day of Zooming). When they return, you’ll be able to draw connections between the groups' various discussions and lead the class into the next portion of your discussion or lecture.

Since focusing on a screen can drain students’ (and instructors’) attention levels, a scheduled THINK-PAIR-SHARE can be a great way to plan to break up class sessions during a designated time block within the meeting’s agenda. It can also be thrown in off-the-cuff.


TPS through Asynchronous Remote Engagement:

Finding ways to connect students with each other when they’re not meeting in-person or for a synchronous video session may seem daunting. However, running a course, or portions of it, asynchronously can ensure the class is more accessible and equitable, and may even be a pedagogically preferable option.

Asynchronous THINK-PAIR-SHARE (TPS) possibilities:

TPS Option 1, using Google Drive:

  • Provide a specific question. Ask students to brainstorm their reactions and formulate one short statement from their reflections, capping at just 20-30 words.

  • Have each student add this statement to a shared Google Drive document.

  • When that document is complete (set a deadline, perhaps mid-week or end of the weekend), students can return to make a comment on a peer’s statement.

  • All of the original statements and comments are now viewable by the entire class.

TPS Option 2, using Chat/Discussion forums:

  • Using chat or discussion platforms in Moodle/Blackboard/Canvas, Slack, Google Hangouts, etc., assign 3-4 designated blocks of time throughout a week when students can take part in a think-pair activity.

  • Offer 3-4-hour windows at different times of day/night to accommodate worldwide time zone differences, class schedules, personal obligations, etc. Remember to offer middle-of-the-night options (for your time zone) in order to serve as daytime options for international students (and also for late-night students in your local time zones).

  • Students log into the forum during a time block and discuss a question/prompt that you provide. These text-based conversations will be conducted non-synchronously, and no one need be online at the same time. However, there will be an increased sense of communal engagement as students respond by writing to a small group.

  • A designated note-taker could provide a brief summary to the class as a whole. This role could rotate throughout the semester, or you may offer extra-credit for volunteers.

TPS Option 3, using Email:

  • Ask students to spend no more than 10 minutes thinking about a question or prompt.

  • After this reflective session, they submit to you 1-2 sentences that summarize their ideas (perhaps even shorter for a larger class).

  • As the instructor, assemble all student comments anonymously into one document without citing personal attribution for each remark.

  • Categorize comments into groupings (a different kind of “pairing”). Then, distribute back to the class by email.

TPS Option 4, using Slack:

  • Assign student pairs for the TPS activity in advance.

  • Choose whether to have students discuss in pairs through channel threads (visible to the whole class) or through direct messages (private to the pair). I discuss the different modes of posting within Slack here.

  • Provide a question or prompt as well as explicit directions about where and how students should communicate.

  • Give students a timeline over which they will communicate non-synchronously with their partner (a few days? a week? longer?).

  • After students conduct PAIR conversations, generate a #channel conversation for the whole class where students report on insights to the entire class.


A Hybrid Alternative: Non-Synchronous Synchronicity


Another option for introducing course flexibility using TPS would be to schedule 3-4 time blocks where students can sign up to participate in a video meeting (without the instructor), either outside of the main synchronous class "meeting" time or as an addition to an otherwise predominantly asynchronous course. Again, these blocks should be quite varied throughout times of day and days of the week.


In these small virtual groups, students can engage in an active PAIR session to discuss material before meeting/interacting with the larger class, lecture meeting, or any other next step in the syllabus or lesson.


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Do you have further thoughts, or experience, with using TPS either in the classroom or online? Please drop a note in the comments section below!



Additional resources for Think-Pair-Share:

Columbia University's Center for Teaching and Learning, "Active Learning for Your Online Classroom: Five Strategies Using Zoom" (website)


Kent State University's Center for Teaching and Learning, Teaching Tools in a Flash: "Active Learning - Think, Pair, Share" (PDF document)


University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee's Virtual Teaching Commons, "Think-Pair-Share" (website)


Jennifer Gonzalez's Cult of Pedagogy, "In Praise of Think-Pair-Share" (podcast and blog post)


The K. Patricia Cross Academy's Instructor's Guide to Think-Pair-Share (PDF document)

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© 2020 by Talia M. Vestri, PhD. Last updated September 2020.