This might be awkward. Let’s consider that painful moment (or two or infinity) between when we ask the class a discussion-launching or comprehension-checking question and when (a) we give up in despair of ever hearing a human voice again or (b) that nice kid in the front row finally offers something up out of plain desperation.  We all know that good teaching involves getting our students to actively connect with the material, and the discussion prompt is a tried and true means of engagement. But we’ve all also experienced the blank stares, the down-turned heads, the aimless shuffling through notes that all say “I would rather die than form an out-loud sentence right now.”

For your consideration, I recommend some version of the Think-Pair-Share


technique for getting past the awkward silences to real discussion and improved learning. This is when you ask a question and give students a few minutes to think about their responses, then they discuss their ideas with a partner, and then each pair shares a response with the whole class.  There are countless varieties of this popular method: Write-Pair-Share (students do a solo quick-write before discussing—gives you something to collect if desired); Think-Pair-Square-Share (students discuss in pairs, then in groups of four before sharing—shortens the reporting-out period in a large class); and of course there are a variety of tools for pairing and sharing, both synchronously and asynchronously, in online classes.

The benefits of this technique are many: Cautious students have a smaller, safer space to try out their ideas, confident students get practice in the skill of explanation, novice learners gain critical processing time, faculty get a window into students’ understanding, and we all are relieved of that soul-killing awkward silence.

But it turns out the key to the success of the Think-Pair-Share is in the details.  For instance, the question has to be big and hard enough to generate real thought, but focused enough that students can get a handle on it.  Projecting the question (and/or an image/graph/chart) is helpful. It’s also critical that students are given enough time to actually process the question and assemble their thoughts. Even if not every pair gets the opportunity to share, it’s probably more important to give adequate time to the thinking and pairing. Of course, it’s also vital to signal that what’s been shared actually matters—by revisiting a concept that has been shown to be tricky, by praising an insightful contribution, by connecting ideas across the groups.

Here’s a great 10-minute video explaining and demonstrating the Think-Pair-Share technique in an introductory Biology class at San Francisco State—relevant to any discipline.

*  Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.

Front-load Engagement

One of the great things about the structure of university life is that we get this opportunity for a do-over every semester. So we can let go of last semester’s slag—the student presentations that disappointed us, the papers so full of words and so void of meaning, the brilliant class discussions that never quite got off the ground—and focus instead on the fresh faces before us. To reduce the likelihood of May regret, consider front-loading the semester with some tools that are shown to improve student success.

Front-load engagement.  Invite students to think about the big picture of your course by asking a big question to get conversation started.  James Lang’s wonderful On Course (Harvard University Press, 2008, 33) offers three examples:

  1. In Art History: Describe for me one work of visual art that has really impressed or interested you; what made it stand out for you?
  2. In Philosophy 101: What makes a person ethical?
  3. In Human Biology: What fields or careers do you think depend heavily on an understanding of human biology?

Your own responses to these kinds of questions offer a chance for students to see your passion for the field, which has been known to be contagious.

Frontload high expectations. Setting the bar high is critical for real student learning. This is done not only by making clear statements about rigorous course requirements and classroom accountability, but also by making it clear that we believe students can learn, meeting them where they are now, and giving them the tools to keep climbing.  (This is an insight at the heart of current conversations around “mindset” and “grit” in education.)

Frontload support. You know that you are there in office hours to help with any course-related issue, and that you are not a scary person. Students may not know this, especially if they are new to college. I’ve heard great ideas about how instructors promote office hour visits—requiring a mandatory shared cup of tea; offering a suggested script for what they might want to ask; assigning them to come in pairs to diffuse the anxiety; creating a simple course task that must be done in person—pick your ploy.  Just by getting the student into your office, you have established a connection on which he or she is more likely to draw when the going gets tough.

And it’s not all on you.  Our university has a great range of support services that we could surely do more to promote. Post on your Blackboard site and remind students frequently about all the resources relevant to your course, starting with the free tutoring that is available in the Student Learning Center.

*Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.