A few weeks ago, I came across a post by Shannon Sidaway on TheTeachingTomTom entitled Encouraging student engagement – Think, Pair, Share. In it, she describes something all too familiar:
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.
Think – Students are first given a problem or a series of questions and are asked to attempt the task on their own.
Pair – Students are then asked to pair up with the person next to them to compare and discuss their answers.
Share – We discuss the task as a class and each pair is required to contribute something to the discussion.
Her description of the process, however, was not what caught my eye. TPS is a common teaching method in history, one that I experienced as a student and one that continue to use in my own seminars. What was surprising was Sidaway’s success. She noted that her students were more likely to respond to questions and discussions were more interactive. This has not been my experience, either as a student or as a teacher.
As a student, a know-it-all student I’ll admit, I usually found TPS sessions to be a case of
- the domineering student (usually me) formulating an answer
- the same student expressing it to their partner or small group, eliciting either approval or passively listening (though sometimes showing clear signs of annoyance)
- the same student relaying that same opinion to the larger group once again, taking turns but not engaging with the other domineering students (or the tutor).
There was no transformation or qualification of the original think ideas and no meaningful sharing or collaboration–and this pattern has continued in my own teaching.
At first, you may think that, even if it fails, a failed TPS session is no worse than the original situation of a few students dominating a large group discussion. You would be wrong. It is three times worse because it takes three times as long with equal results. Under the guise of engagement and interaction, you and your students are wasting contact hours rather than utilising them to their full potential.
In order to counteract these difficulties, I have tried variants of TPS, such as snow-ball discussions. Every time the group grows (singles to pairs to fours), I ask a more complicated question or set a more complicated problem, something that requires the students move beyond their original conclusions and actively formulate new ones. Other times, rather than increase the size of the groups, I merely have the students exchange partners–with the caveat that they must be able to relay what their former partner said alongside their own opinion. Both of these methods have had some success; they both move the conversation forward rather tempt students into repetition, and the latter relieves some of the pressure associated with speaking before large groups.
Yet, overall, I am left wary of TPS as an effective teaching methodology for the standard fifty-minute history seminar. The temptation to engage in shallow or repetitive discussions is too great and the rewards for meaningful exchange are too implicit. Much like online discussion boards, these mini-conversations are viewed by students, not as an opportunity to practice rhetorical finesse or refine arguments, but merely as something they must do with no tangible reward.
On the other hand, if these discussions had more explicit and tangible rewards, such as the development of an impenetrable argument for an assessed debate the following week, perhaps they would be seen as more than merely passing the time.