Encouraging student engagement – Think, Pair, Share

Post by: Shannon Sidaway
Shannon Sidaway is an associate lecturer in the School of Accounting. She commenced her academic career at RMIT University in January 2011. Prior to this, Shannon worked for a mid-tier accounting firm where she qualified as a Chartered Accountant. Highlights from Shannon’s first semester at RMIT University include presenting at a national research conference and a short teaching visit to Singapore.

Image courtesy ofHackNY

What is TPS?

Hint: It is not like GPS but if used correctly can provide some direction.

An awkward silence fills the room and student heads hang low in an attempt to avoid eye contact with me at all costs. I have put myself in quite the predicament once again and as a result, I am left “hanging”. It is my Wednesday afternoon tutorial class and I am trying to do all the right things. You see, this is my first semester as an accounting academic and part of what I have learnt so far is that it is important to gauge the class’ understanding of important concepts and that one should encourage an interactive learning environment. So this is why I asked the class “can anybody tell me the basic accounting equation?” and this is why an awkward silence has filled the room and this is why student heads are hanging low in an attempt to avoid eye contact with me at all costs.

Unsure how to remove myself from this predicament, I see two main exits, both flawed:

1. I answer the question myself and it goes something like “The basic accounting equation is that your assets equal your liabilities plus your owner’s equity”. Unfortunately, I have not gauged the class’ understanding of this important concept because I sense that the non-response from students was likely not due to a lack of understanding but more so a lack of desire to respond to the question.

2. I single out a student, prompt them to raise their head, look at me and ask them directly. With any luck their answer could go something like “ um well, ya know, like you got your assets right, well they are kinda like equal to ya liabilities plus ya owners equity”. On the other hand, their answer could go something like “…um…ah…I’m not really sure…I don’t know…sorry” and be accompanied by a nervous stutter, red cheeks and a wave of embarrassment.

I soon realise that I need a way to avoid this predicament while still gauging understanding and encouraging student interaction. As a new academic, I am currently completing my Graduate Certificate in Tertiary Teaching and Learning, so I decided to discuss my dilemma with my teacher and class mates in the hope that they may be able to assist. From this discussion, I was introduced to a teaching tool called ‘Think, Pair, Share’ (TPS) and I wonder how in those early weeks of teaching I managed to get by without it.

There are a number of variations of TPS but generally it works like this:

Students are first given a problem or a series of questions and are asked to attempt the task on their own.
I have found that sometimes when students are immediately paired or grouped up, they tend to talk socially and not give sufficient consideration to the task. Asking students to first consider and attempt the task individually helps to overcome this.

Students are then asked to pair up with the person next to them to compare and discuss their answers.
By this stage, the student has already engaged with the task and is often keen to find out how their answer compares with their class mates. I have found that students use this time to actually discuss the task, rather than socially chat.
I usually use this time to roam around the room and see how students are progressing and provide assistance where necessary.

We discuss the task as a class and each pair is required to contribute something to the discussion.
I essentially break the task up into small pieces and go around the room asking each pair to contribute the next piece. Before doing this, I always let the class know that if they don’t know the answer then that is ok and that they have three choices; they can pass, they can guess, or if they think they know part of the answer, then they can share the part that they know.

I have found that very rarely do the students choose to ‘pass’ even with the tricky questions. I believe that this is for a number of reasons:

– The students feel more confident with their responses because they have discussed it with their class mates and so they are not alone.
– The classroom has become an interactive environment and students are happier to contribute when everyone else is.
– They have been told that it is OK if they do not know the answer so there is less pressure to get it right.
– If they are really unsure of the answer, they have had an opportunity during the ‘pair’ phase to seek assistance from me.

TPS can be used in so many ways to suit a variety of situations. In fact, I think sometimes we use TPS in our everyday lives without even realising it. Consider the approach I used to solve my teaching dilemma. Think: I first thought about the problem on my own and realised that I needed a way to avoid my predicament while still gauging understanding and encouraging interaction. Pair: I then discussed the problem with a small group of classmates to come up with a solution. Share: I am now using this blog as a means by which to share my experience with you all so if you ever find yourself in a classroom with an awkward silence and student heads hung low, you might consider using Think, Pair, Share.

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