In many courses, class discussion is a central part of student learning. Whether you’re using the Socratic method or aiming for something much more freeform, getting your students to voice their (sometimes not fully-formed) thoughts can be an especially effective way of engaging active learning.

What do you do if your students are reluctant to talk? Erin wrote a great post early last year with specific suggestions for addressing this situation. What if only a few students actually participate in class discussion regularly? This is undesirable for two reasons. First, their thoughts take on a disproportionate weight in the conversations, and second, the other students are allowed to coast, letting these few students do the majority of the work necessary in class discussion.

One activity that I’ve found quite useful was developed by Frank Lyman thirty years ago and goes by the name “think-pair-share.” (I’m pretty sure this publication is where Lyman first wrote about this activity.) It’s really quite simple, but it’s almost always effective, in my experience. Here’s how it works:

  1. Ask a clearly-phrased question of your students. Be sure everyone understands what you’re asking. See if anyone needs you to repeat the question. Give students a couple of minutes to think about their answer to the question.

  2. Have each student turn to a person seated nearby and discuss their answers to the question for a few minutes.

  3. Finally, ask for volunteers to share details from their discussions.

This activity allows every student the opportunity to think something through and discuss their thoughts out loud. It also shields students who might be shy from having to speak up in front of a room full of people, which creates a significant amount of anxiety in many people. And “think-pair-share” can also help with the problem of a few student voices always being the same ones heard in each class meeting.

After I used this technique several times earlier this semester, I wondered if it was as widely known as I had assumed. After learning via Twitter that only about half of those who responded to a query already knew of this discussion strategy, I figured it would be worthwhile to share a few details more widely.


How about you? Do you use “think-pair-share”? Do you use a different strategy for facilitating effective class discussions? Let’s hear from you in the comments.

[Creative Commons-licensed flickr photo by bptakoma]