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Single Best Way to Transform Classrooms of Any Size!

Single Best Way to Transform Classrooms of Any Size!

Single Best Free Way to Transform Classrooms (Primary-Lifelong) of Any Size--and Fast Too!

It may sound like I'm selling snake oil, but I actually do have one trick that, at almost no cost, can transform your classroom or public speaking event, whether a seminar or a lecture, whether for 8 year olds or doctoral students, CEOs or senior citizens.  You can try this tomorrow, and turn the biggest lecture into an interactive, collaborative experience without so much as an investment even in clickers or a projector.  I've used it in most of the 55+ presentations I've given this year for my book Now You See It  and I've used it in my classes.   Here is the expensive version.  It requires the swank new technology called "index cards":

1.  Pass out index cards to each student  (or audience member) (NB:  If you can't afford index cards, have them take out a half-sheet of paper.)

2.  Set your watch or a timer for 90 seconds. 

3.  Think:  Tell students/participants to write down three things (and you vary the three things each time:   I might ask my students to list the three most important "take-aways" from the week's readings or from last week's class; if I'm talking to an audience, I might ask the general public their three greatest fears about not keeping up in a digital age; or I might ask executives the three things they most look for in a new employee that they hope will one day become a leader in their company; or if I talk to college teachers or students, I ask the three things they think every student today needs to thrive in the 21st century.  In other words, you have them commit to their notecards, for 90 seconds, three responses to something important).

4. Pair:  Set that watch or timer again.   Ask them to turn to someone they didn't walk in with, and, in the next 90 seconds, take turns reading the three things.  First one person reads outloud while the other listens without interrupting.  Then the second person reads three things while the first listens without interrupting (it may be the only time the person every hears his or her own voice--it's an important step).  After they hear one another, then have them think about the six things on their cards, see where there is overlap, where there is difference, and ask them to discuss and, together, decide on what is the single most important thing to share with the whole group.  It may well be a mix of things on each card.   You will be amazed at how engaged and invested they are.  That's why they have to have written something down before the conversation, it gets right past the "what do you think?" awkwardness.  I do a version of this at some point in every class--sometimes at the beginning, sometimes in the middle when discussion is lagging, sometimes at the end.  It takes five or at most 7 or 8 minutes.  All studies of learning show these are the 5 minutes where the real learning happens, where students adapt what they have heard or read to their own lives, where they make it memorable, where they understand it in new and individual and also collective ways, and they learn from how one another learns and values what they have learned. It's especially great in alienated lectures.  And it works (see @ericmazur at Harvard) in physics classes and in history classes, in political science or in computer science, in English or in African American studies.  In other words, anywhere.


5. Share: If it is a small enough group (I've done this with 6000 people in a basketball arena), go around and have someone from each pair read their one best idea with the whole group.   Or, to save time, have them send one member to the board to write out their one best idea.  (You can then conduct a whole class or session making connections between the ideas they have written on the board.) 


NB:  Do not skip any of the above steps.   Having students write individually first, and then take turns reading out loud what they have written and then discuss their thinking ("answers") with someone else and then having them together make some kind of new decision or conclusion, exchanging ideas and convincing or listening to another person, and then explaining that process (or in a huge group, having that process discussed by the teacher)  is the key part of the learning experience.   (In large classes or groups, I have people shout out the circled answer and make that the focus of the next part of the conversation.


6.  As a bonus, on special occasions, in a smaller group of say 30 or 40 or less, I then have them look at the shared answers and come up with the ONE best answer together---the room bursts with excited conversation when I do this.  (Often I make that one answer the subject of the rest of the discussion.)


7.  Finally:  I lead a discussion on the difference between the student's individual experience and their collective ones. I extend that discussion philosophically, in different ways on different occasions.  For example:  I talk about our role as citizens of the World Wide Web, how we have to learn and respect collaboration and connection, and make the most of how we can learn from and teach one another.  That's the lesson plan, and I use it in class after class, lecture after lecture.  So simple. A real life example of connected learning.  And all it costs (at the high end) is some index cards(even those are optional--but they do help with focus), 5 minutes of your time, and the creative engagement of your students.


Okay, there you have it my single best trick. 


It doesn't just work for humanities--Eric Mazur does it in physics classes at Harvard.  You can add research assignments to it as a follow-up, have them do the research and come back the next day and, guess what, you then do the process all over again, same sequence.   Rinse. Repeat.   It works on just about any level.  We even did this at our HASTAC annual retreat and we were amazed at what we learned, and we spend practically every day together.

When I do this at conferences or in big public audiences, I often have them write their email address on the card.  After they finish discussing, I have them exchange cards--that way they know that, someone else out there, shares their ideas about how to learn in an interactive age.  I've had people write me six months later to tell me they are developing tools, serving on panels, or just exchanging ideas with the person they met and have kept in touch with this way.

The benefit of taking this time from a prepared lecture (either in class or in a formal auditorium setting for a larger public) greatly outweighs any drawbacks.  All studies of learning show these are the 5 minutes where the real learning happens, where students adapt what they have heard to their own lives, where they make it memorable, where they understand it in new and individual and also collective ways, and they learn from how one another learns and values what they have learned.

The other benefit, for us as teachers, is that it is a great reaffirmation of what we do.  It is based in a well-researched pedagogy (it's called Think-Pair-Share) that underscores that, first, we don't really know what we think until we write it down; that, second, we don't really understand what we know until we explain it to someone else; that, third, explanation is really about interaction and learning and teaching, all mixed together; and that, four, the final step, presenting the result of one's discussion to a larger, coherent group that then discusses the ideas is already demonstrating that one's thinking can have impact on others.  Perfect.  

When I lecture, I turn this inside out and all kinds of different ways, but the single most important point I make is you can involve students in a group of 2500 (I did this with an audience of this size on a number of occasion) or 25, with no cost (if you don't want, you can have them use their own piece of paper).  You can do it with a screen and projector.  You don't need to.  No tech is fine.  The point is interaction, collaboration, and thinking about how we think, alone and in groups, and in how we learn---by rote, by hearing, or by processing, applying, explaining, defending, and mastering. 

Try it tomorrow.  And write a comment and let us all know how it went! 


Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and  Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). She is co-PI on the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions.   NOTE:  The views expressed in Cat in the Stack blogs and in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of HASTAC, nor of any institution or organization. Davidson also writes on her own author blog, [NYSI cover]



Today was the first day back from spring break. The kids were listless and unmotivated (and tired). So, after showing a video about the down and dirty details of Shakespeare's life (intended to wake them up a bit), I tried this activity. They were to first, individually, make a list of the three most important details about the life of Shakespeare (easy enough, right?). BUT, then, I showed a video that discussed the theory that Shakespeare was NOT really the author of all those plays and sonnets. So THEN, I told them to turn to their partner-that-they-did-not-come-in-with and decide which of the three "most important" details about Shakespeare's life supported the fact that he DID, in fact, write all those plays and sonnets. (Mind you, this is 8th grade and most learners are operating in a second language). So, after 10 minutes, I asked each group to tell me their decision (I forgot to add, they were allowed to use Google to "supplement" their original lists). At this point, a great debate arose around this well as the issue of how we marginalize certain populations and tell them that they can't be smart or succeed because they don't have the "pedigre'". 

And, so......this will be part of my daily process from now on. The students will never forget these thoughs, AND, i suspect that many are at home tonight researching facts to support the argument they put forth today in class. WIN-learning!


On Facebook, a colleague wrote about a "tooth-grinding" class where only a percentage of the students had done the reading.  The long comment section was about responsive professorial tooth grinding.  But just yesterday I heard about a brilliant application of the Index Card Trick that saved such a situation and I want to pass it on here as it is highly applicable to any classroom and can be adapted as such.


In this case, Duke ws hosting a visit from the amazing sound and cultural studies scholar, Jonathan Sterne, one of my favorite thinkers and someone who recently told me he "read a pedagogy book every summer" to improve what must be spectacular teaching.   He's going to blog about an exercise he does to prepare students for multiple choice exams in enormous classes (the genius form of preparation compensates for the paucity of real learning that happens from the item-response testing). I'll link to his post when he blogs it.  In the meantime, I heard how he used my index card trick in his presentation for a seminar here and it is highly adaptable to the "omg, the students didn't do their reading today" situation . . . and doubles as a "pop quiz" that records who did and who didn't read too.

Jonathan, who is a prof at McGill,  was invited down by graduate students and perhaps some undergrads and faculty too in a sound group here.  It was to be an informal discussion.  He began by asking who had read the book and it turned out only about half did.  So he divided the group into those who had read, and those who had not and  had the readers write "three things you are still curious about having read the book" and the non-readers, "three things you want to know about even though you haven't read the book."   They wrote their three things and then he paired the readers and non-readers and had them discuss and then circle "the most important thing to discuss together."  He privileged the circled comments by readers, and, in his presentation, had the group shout out the comments and he put them on a google doc and projected them.  In a low-tech situation (such as the one I had at MSU and blogged on here), you just have one person from each team write the questions on the board, and then you, as teacher or lecturer, decide the order you prefer to go in, and you address each one.  

My graduate student told me the seminar was brilliant.  Even those who had not read had learned from the paired discussion, and all participated.  And instead of it being a demoralizing situation (i.e. the Famous Speaker You Admire Realizes Some of You Dolts Didn't Do the Reading:  hey, it's the last week of class, we're human, if ashamed, etc), it was a vigorous, lively, engaged discussion for all.

This is perfect for the class where half or more show up without doing the reading AND it saves the tedium of a pop quiz.   You have students sign the cards and indicate whether or not they had done the reading before you pair them---and collect the cards.   You don't waste a class with tooth grinding, you don't waste a second of your precious professorial time reading pop quizzes with a lot of fakery going on, and you still have a record of who did the reading---and that is intimidating to students.    If I were doing this, I'd say we'll be doing this for future readings because (a) the time of those invested in a class should not be wasted by those who did not spend the time (b) you don't want to waste your time on a pop quiz but you also want to make note of who did take the time to read and it will count, if you do things this way, in the final participation grade and (c) it is such a good method that even the non-readers will learn and (d) now let's get on with a great conversation based on what collaborative thinking, those who read and those who didn't, came up with as great questions for a great conversation.   No teeth grinding.  Voila!   Those index cards are a life saver . . . I promise!   What it requires, though, is a deep paradigm shift in what constitutes a valuable conversation and contribution.  It works.  It really works. 


... I hate to be the nay-sayer but the awful class was the one in which I tried this particular index card trick!  I have been using index cards for 5 years now for various things --  freewrites, opinion polls, etc.  I tried the "3 things" exercise yesterday and it flopped.  I should say that I did not have the smarts to do what your colleague Jonathan did and just poll them about who did the reading first, so maybe things would have gone differently if I had.  I should also say that students at my institution are EXTREMELY resistant to anything that looks like group as opposed to solo work, as many view that as an opportunity for someone else to freeload off of their work.  Lastly, the rows of bolted-down desks in which my students are trapped (in huge classes) makes any kind of group or pair work very difficult.

In general, though, I am very pro-index card and use them all the time.  The other big low-tech fix for me has been substituting the overhead document camera for PowerPoint, because you can throw up a chunk of text and lead a "collaborative close reading" exercise, marking it up as you go.  The students are always amazed at what they as individuals didn't see about the passages, and it models marking up a literary text very effectively.  PowerPoint, on the other hand, is too rigid and non-interactive for me and I have dropped it except as a slide show.

So actually, I've gone lower-tech as the years go by!




Thanks, Beth, This is a very useful reminder, addendum.  I love your comment that you have gone "lower tech as the years go by."  I like it that interactive does not necessarily mean high tech.


Yes, I wish I'd known the great Jonathan Sterne Trick (he teaches at McGill in Montreal) a few weeks ago when I went to an event that was supposed to be about my book and no one had read it.   Check!  Lesson learned!  I plan to try this next time it happens to me and it will happen, both in class when it happens and at professional academic workshops colleagues who also don't always "do the assignment" (really, now?  is that possible?  faculty not doing the reading either? whoever heard of such a thing!)   Thanks again!


I use index cards for:

Informal attendance

One-minute freewrites

Two-minute "answer this question" warm-ups

Collecting and reading aloud the comments of those who do not speak in my huge classes

Participation grades -- I've given up on remembering so many names.

Anonymous opinion polls -- "what's working best/least well for you in this class?," etc.

Collecting and having TA divide into categories, reporting back "the debate" as reflected in the cards