Thinking about Think-Pair-Share

I’ve had Think-Pair-Share on my mind for a while now.

I believe it started back in the spring, when I was invited to be a “Transformer in Residence” at ALTfest, the Academic Learning Transformation Festival held at VCU in May. Jon Becker asked me to put together a workshop on transforming large-enrollment classes, and I drafted a workshop description (you know, before drafting the workshop) that promised tools and techniques “you can use to convert your large class size from a limitation to a strength.” That’s a tall order, I said to myself weeks later when preparing the workshop.

I thought back to the placemark question activity I used at that learning spaces conference here in Nashville back in February. That was an activity that worked better because I had a big crowd for that session, which struck me as a key idea for my ALTfest workshop. I pulled together some of the more creative uses of classroom response systems I had seen or implemented myself (you can see them in the back half of my ALTfest prezi), and I saw a pattern. Most of them required students to think about a question or problem, then pair up to discuss their ideas, then share their answers using some kind of technology, and then analyze the aggregated responses.


It’s that last step that can “convert your large class size from a limitation to a strength.” It’s interesting to analyze a few student responses to a question. It can be even more interesting to analyze a few hundred student responses to a question. And regardless of class size, asking students to analyze their peers’ responses to a question can be a very useful activity. Sure, you can draw your own (expert) conclusions about their responses, but why not have the novices in the room practice that kind of analysis?

However, “-Analyze” isn’t part of the classic Think-Pair-Share model, I think because that classic model doesn’t assume any kind of classroom response system that can facilitate aggregation of student answers. So, as much fun as it was to expand on that classic model at ALTfest (which was an amazing conference, by the way, thanks in part to Mimi Ito’s keynote), when I got home, I went back to talking about Think-Pair-Share.

It comes up a lot. Just two weeks ago, at a workshop for instructors of first-year writing seminars hosted by our local Writing Studio, one of my fellow participants mentioned Think-Pair-Share and asked me, the Center for Teaching person in the room, to say a few words about it. I was happy to do so and, as usual, a little surprised that experienced instructors hadn’t heard the term before. In this case, in the context of writing seminars, I noted that “Think” might very well be “Write.” These two threads — surprise at instructors not having heard the term and the tweaking of the formula to fit a writing seminar — put an idea in my head.

The next weekend, game night was cancelled so I had some unexpected free time. I decided to take that idea and make something of it. Here’s what I made:

Think Pair Share (v3)The graphic briefly explains Think-Pair-Share and offers a couple of dozen ways to customize the basic process to a particular teaching context. I shared the graphic on Twitter the next day, and it was fun to see all the retweets that resulted. (I put a CC BY on the graphic, so feel free to share it far and wide.)

That led me to reflect a bit on Think-Pair-Share in my “From the Director” piece in the most recent Center for Teaching newsletter and, more importantly, put some creative energy into applying the process in my first-year writing seminar on cryptography. I’d like to share one example of Think-Pair-Share(-Analyze) from that course, since I think it went well and it makes more concrete some of the abstract ideas I’ve tried to describe above.

The topic of the day was prime numbers. The specific concept was relatively prime numbers, numbers that share no common prime factors. I defined the term and shared a couple of quick examples of pairs of relatively prime numbers. For instance, 34 and 45 are relatively prime because 34 = 2 x 17 and 45 = 3 x 3 x 5, which means they share no prime factors.  Then I asked my students to generate pairs of three-digit relatively prime numbers and submit them through a free-response question on Poll Everywhere. While the students were busy doing that, I submitted a pair of numbers that was not relatively prime.

Once all the student responses were in, here’s what we saw:

Poll Ev - Relatively Prime Numbers(One student followed the Poll Everywhere instructions incorrectly and submitted my name as his or her answer. No big deal.)

Next, I told students that at least one pair of numbers on the screen was incorrect, thanks to my response to the question. I asked students to work in groups of three to identify any incorrect pairs. (It turned out that one of the students had submitted an incorrect pair, so there were two wrong answers on the screen. Even better.)

After the groups had a couple of minutes to work, I asked for a volunteer to identify a pair of relatively prime numbers (that is, a correct answer) and tell us how she confirmed those numbers shared no prime factors. The student told us that 493 = 17 x 29 and 611 = 13 x 47, so that pair was relatively prime. How did the student obtain those prime factorizations? Brute force, dividing each number by larger and larger primes until one went in evenly. Perfect.

Then I asked the student who submitted that particular pair to tell us how she generated the pair. She had selected a couple of two digit prime numbers, multiplied them, then selected a different pair of prime numbers, and multiplied them. Easy. This allowed me to point out that multiplying a couple of prime numbers is a lot simpler than factoring a large number into a product of primes. That’s the main idea behind public key cryptography, as we’ll see later in the course, so I was happy the students got to experience that firsthand through this activity!

We wrapped up by having a couple more students identify the incorrect answers on the screen (my submission, 234 and 325, and one other submission, 111 and 300) and walk through the prime factorization process they used to check those answers.

Reflecting on the activity now, I see that I skipped the Share phase of Think-Pair-Share, but I brought it back as part of the Analyze phase. This, I think, is the point of this post about Think-Pair-Share. I described it during that writing seminar workshop as the “atomic unit of classroom engagement.” You can take the basic structure and adapt it many different ways to organize learning activities. (Maybe that makes it more molecular than atomic, as Simon Lancaster pointed out.) It’s an important tool in a teacher’s toolbox, one that’s even more interesting and useful when enhanced by a little technology.

I would love to see more examples. How have you adapted Think-Pair-Share in your classroom? Have you used classroom response systems or other technologies to add an -Analyze step to the process?

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