Sharing the Task of Learning: Using Think-Pair-Shares in a Digital World

By David Nurenberg

Even more so than in a physical classroom, teachers in an online environment can’t expect to only lecture—whether in real time or in a downloadable video—and have their students learn. Fortunately, some go-to strategies of more student-centered learning translate well to an online environment.

The “Think Pair Share” (TPS) is a useful tool for engaging every single student in doing something, and for holding them accountable for their learning. Students begin by thinking through a problem or question and writing down their thoughts. This writing can make for good formative assessment, but only if it’s graded on a “did it/didn’t do it” basis, or else students may be too scared to experiment with their ideas. Next, they compare thoughts with a partner, and both students refine their understanding. They share out further with a small group of four or five before the teacher brings the entire class back together to engage with the lesson.

Remote learning means our students can’t move around the room to form pairs or groups, but we can recreate that effect through synchronous private chat between students, or through either synchronous or asynchronous shared Google docs. These methods carry the added benefit of producing a transcript of their conversation, for both formative assessment and student reflection on learning.

We can also use breakout rooms for small group discussions. All the major distance learning apps offer the ability to create virtual rooms and assign certain students to them. Since each group works within its own isolated virtual bubble, they can’t hear, distract or be distracted by the other groups like they might in a physical classroom. The teacher can pop into any group at any time to eavesdrop or offer assistance. However, not every platform offers breakout rooms in its free version, and this tool also assumes all students can meet together synchronously, an assumption we cannot take for granted right now.

Even asynchronously, a TPS allows everyone time to formulate ideas, as opposed to having to come up with an answer on the spot. It also means that every student, and not just the eager hand-raisers, get to tackle the day’s problem. It’s possible, of course, that just a handful of well-prepared, high-readiness-level kids are carrying the weight, and everyone else is just learning from them, but that still means they’re learning…or at the very least, being exposed to models of effective approach.

Teachers can even structure instruction around a TPS model. In a traditional lesson, the teacher models a concept or a means of solving a problem, then leads the class in jointly replicating it. Next students might recreate it in groups, and finally, every individual student on their own is responsible for demonstrating mastery. Edspeak calls this “gradual release.” A TPS approach inverts this model: instead of beginning with the teacher, it begins with the individual student attempting to solve the problem, then slowly adds more heads to put together and tackle the problem jointly (remember, these stages have to be low-stakes!). This isn’t about leaving students to fend for themselves. Rather, when the students get as far as they can on their own (first individually, then with others), the teacher does step in to nudge, hint, reinforce, and help steer back those students who are utterly lost. Outright providing the solution should be the teacher’s last resort. It’s hard to resist that urge, but kids seeing or hearing an answer isn’t the same as them learning something. Remember, they’re the ones whose job it is to learn; if we just provide answers, we rob them of that opportunity.

At least, that’s what research tells us about how learning works. Students don’t just “copy” knowledge from a lecture or movie into their brains—they have to construct it through their process of questioning, experimenting, and interacting with others. Even if they can only get halfway there on their own and the teacher has to fill in the rest, they’ve at least invested time and thought, which will give them a stronger base from which to build future understandings.

It’s here, towards the end of the lesson, that we do our big lecture, because by now students have gotten their arms deep in the material and hopefully have become invested. Now we can show them expansions, model “how a pro would do it,” and perhaps make it clear to them that they need to be that pro, or close to it, by the time the unit’s done.

This kind of lesson is much harder for me to plan than traditional ones, and takes longer to get anything done, but the payoff is that every student can be involved from the get-go, rather than just me yakking away while the kids are busy surfing social media instead of paying attention (if it’s synchronous) or just fast forwarding through the material (if I’ve posted a video). COVID-19 has changed the educational landscape, but not how students learn best…nor has it robbed us of tools like the TPS, that help kids learn for real ownership.


David Nurenberg, PhD is an associate professor at Lesley University’s Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, MA. He taught high school ELA for 20 years, and now trains teachers and consults for schools in the Boston area. David is also the host of the progressive-education podcast Ed Infinitum. His latest book, What Does Injustice Have to Do with Me?,was published by Rowman and Littlefield this year.

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