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Think-Pair-Share Strategies for More Active Content Delivery

A common threshold I hear among educators is students stop paying attention after 10-15 minutes. They obviously did not survey me as a student or threw out my fifteen-seconds as an outlier! In a review of studies completed on student attention, researchers found that, yes, attention does vary, but the 10-15 minute threshold does not have supporting research (Wilson and Korn, 2007). It seems to be a number that has been cited over and over without a sound empirical origin. A more recent study of college chemistry students found their minds wandered increasingly throughout class with some lapses in attention beginning at 30 seconds (Bunce et al., 2010)!

Think-Pair-Share is a strategy that can be used keep student attention and increase learning during your content delivery.

Overview:

  • Break passive content delivery into smaller time chunks.
  • Create relevant questions for each chunk.
  • Have students complete a think-pair-share for each question before delivering the content.

Breaking

The first step is to identify specific points to interrupt content delivery in order to apply think-pair-share. Review your content to identify natural breaks between main concepts and split it into the smallest coherent chunks possible. Level and subject are going to dictate the size. A college professor may currently have a 50-minute chunk of lecture that could be broken into ten pieces. A middle school math teacher who explains a lesson for the first 20 minutes of class followed by 25 minutes of work time might spread the 20-minute explanation across five four-minute pieces, each centered around a specific math problem.

Create “Think” Questions

Next, create a “think” question for each chunk that students will understand, but only be able to fully answer after being presented with the content. If possible, make the question relevant and interesting and just challenging enough that most students can’t completely answer with their current knowledge. 

You’ll pose this question before presenting each chunk of content. Have the students write down the question and their answer individually—this is the “think” part of the activity. Writing the question and an answer (even if it is rough) is very important.

Some examples of a “think” question might include:

  • “Did you know there are six types of triangles? Take a minute and try to draw as many different types of triangles as you can. When you’re done, I’ll explain each type and you can see how many you found.”
  • “Epithelial tissue is found throughout your entire body. Mainly, it is a tissue that covers and lines the different parts of your body. Before I discuss it, take a minute and make a list of parts in your body that might need a protective covering.”
  • “You need to save at least $100/month, but can only work 40 hours each month. If your living expenses are $200/month, what is the lowest hourly wage you can accept?”
  • “We’ve discussed why the U.S. didn’t initially enter WWII, but eventually something happened that caused us to join the war. Before we discuss it, I would like you to write down 1) The reasons why we hadn’t join the war and 2) If you were President in 1941, what type of event would have been serious enough to make you join?”

Pair

Don’t give students too long to answer these questions because they’ll continue with a partner next during the “pair” part of the activity. Ask students to discuss and compare their answers with the classmate sitting next to them. They should help each other and make improvements to their answers. At the beginning of your year or semester, it is helpful to model how students should interact while they pair. For example, each partner reads their answer, explains how they reached it, and what they weren’t sure about. They could finish by creating a single answer after their discussion.

Share

Finally, before you actually present the content, ask groups to “share” some of their answers with the whole class. Be enthusiastic about their responses! If they were incorrect or unsure, ask them what information would be useful for answering the question. This can serve as a bridge to what you will say during your upcoming explanation and also identify where they need the most help. As you give that explanation, be sure to reference the question and ask students for their input at key points to show their minute of thinking and writing was worthwhile.

Practice

The think-pair-share activity before the chunk of content delivery was to prime student’s prior knowledge. They need additional practice after your content delivery to actually learn the information. You can use an additional, more complicated think-pair-share after each chunk of content delivery, or simply give a follow up question related to the original question. For example, have students pair again and answer follow-ups like these to the original questions above: 

  • “With your partner, double-check that you have each type of triangle drawn and labeled. Then, come up with a real-life example of each triangle to share with the class.”
  • “Add to your list of body parts that need to be covered by epithelial tissue using your partner’s responses and what we’ve just discussed. Then, pick two and discuss how the epithelial tissue would need to function differently on each part.”
  • “Write an equation to solve for the problem that also takes into account the 25% of your paycheck that goes toward taxes.”
  • “Now, compare your answers and make any needed edits for why the U.S. hadn’t entered the war. With your partner, discuss if what happened at Pearl Harbor would have met your criteria for entering the war.”

Ask for student pairs to again “share” their answers with the class after a couple minutes. Their answers will let you know if they need more time and practice to learn what you explained. Spend a minute summarizing when the discussion comes to an end. Then, pose the next question and repeat the process for the next chunk of content. Ideally, the questions would build on each other and transition naturally.

Without dedicated activities like think-pair-share, you can’t be sure that anything explained during your content delivery will stick. Ideally, more and more of your class would be dedicated to activities like think-pair-share instead of passive content delivery.

Tips to make Think-Pair-Share work:

  • Move around the room and connect with students while they are working.
  • Use questions similar to your think-pair-share questions as future assignment, quiz, or test questions (a.k.a. alignment). Tell the students you will be doing this and let them use their notes on the homework, quizzes, or exams.
  • Have students write their answers, not just just think and talk.
  • Always make time during and after your content delivery for sharing.
  • Be enthusiastic and encouraging in your response to shared answers.
  • Ask students if the question was helpful for understanding the information.
  • Keep thinking and pairing time short.
  • Reduce how much time you talk about the content so students have more opportunity for thinking, pairing, and sharing. It will accomplish the same goal!
  • Write the first “think” question on the board before class begins so students can enter and begin working right away.

 

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