ben-steinBy Lew Ludwig, Department of Mathematics, Denison University:

Bueller?… Bueller?… Bueller?…

We’ve all had those moments in the classroom.  You pose a well-crafted question for the class to respond, and no one does.  You try again with a slightly rephrased version of the question in hopes of soliciting some form of response.  Nothing.  Then the waiting game begins between you, the class, and that one student who will usually say something to avoid the awkward silence.  I’ve seen newer faculty members under the pressure of looking competent rely more and more on the “one” student until the class discussion turns into a conversation between the faculty member and that one student.

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 and avoids the Ferris Bueller moment.  After you pose your well-crafted question, pause, state the slightly rephrased version, and then 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, this room full of mostly 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 also he could ask anyone a question without risk of embarrassment as this person was just reporting what the neighbor said.

For those familiar with this technique, it is just a variation of the Think-Pair-Share model often used in elementary school.  In this method, the students might first reflect 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 insure a varied discussion, every week I randomly assign student pairs who act as neighbors.  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 great 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; unlike other group learning techniques there is no need for a timekeeper, scribe, etc.  In addition, the time required is very flexible.  Sometimes I will give them as little as 30 seconds to compare ideas to as much as 10 minutes on longer exercises, as I circulate the room nudging discussions and gauging understanding.  In a given 50-minute class period I use this technique from 3-10 times depending on the topic and the mood of the class.  I highly recommend you give it a try in your next class.  It takes a few times, but you will be amazed at how quickly your students catch on and become engaged in their learning.


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