Low Tech Student Engagement Tools

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Problem: The same student(s) always answer questions.

Solution:  Popsicle sticks

The same student(s) always answer questions while the rest of the class remains quiet.  How can we get other students involved in the discussion?  Place each student's name on a popsicle stick and place the popsicle sticks in a container.  When seeking responses, draw popsicle sticks at random.  Not only does the randomness keep students engaged, but it also ensures that everyone will have an opportunity to share.  Asking students to draw names can remove instructor subjectivity.

Problem:  I can't tell which groups or students really need help.

Solution:  Stop and Go Cups (or cards)

When active learning activities are in full swing, especially in larger classes, it's very difficult to get feedback from all students/groups on their progress and understanding.  One easy way to tell how students are doing is to hand them a set of color coded cups or cards - green, yellow, and red.

ColorIndividuallyIn Groups
GreenLecture pace good/Understanding materialProgressing fine with task
YellowPlease slow downProgressing slowly, needs help
RedI don't understandGroup is not progressing - needs immediate help

Problem: Students are waiting for someone else to answer before solving the problems themselves.

Solution: Index Card Answers

There are many student polling apps available, some paid, some free.  Undoubtedly each semester they will be a day or two in which the polling app servers are malfunctioning.  A great low tech way to garner student responses is to hand out index cards, each with a letter A-E written on it.  When asking multiple choice questions, students can hold up the card corresponding to their answer.  Alternatively, when in a bind, and you don't have time to hand out cards, students can denote answers with their fingers, placing their hand in front of their chests, so other students cannot see their answers.

Problem: Students do not discuss problem solving with each other.

Solution: Think-pair-share

I saw a very revealing, humorous video on this topic during the summer.  Although the video is not appropriate for this post, I did realize that many times students will jump directly to sharing, before spending adequate time thinking about the problem.  In my classes, I do not call discussions "think-pair-share."  Rather, I give specific directions like "Work on the problem individually for x minutes, then submit your answers (electronically or otherwise), then discuss your answers with a partner." 

Problem: In class, students don't have a chance to stop and reflect on their learning.

Solution: 2-minute paper (Quick writes)

We all need a chance to stop and reflect on what we are learning.  Many times, as instructors, we start class by taking a breath and lecture for the entire class period and stop only to dismiss the class at the end.  While we may have said everything we intended to, students most likely were not given adequate chance to stop and reflect on what was being said.  I've been in many workshops as a participant, where the facilitators gave us time to stop and reflect by asking simple questions like "Summarize what you just learned." After the 2- minutes, instructors can gain much insight into the student's thought processes by letting them share (voluntarily) what they wrote - or by collecting their papers.

Problem: I cannot tell what students are struggling with.

Solution: Exit ticket (Muddiest Point)

A permutation on the 2-minute paper is the exit ticket.  It's very difficult, many times, to determine what topic(s) students are struggling with at the end of a lecture.  Some instructors ask students to do a 2-minute paper by asking them to describe their muddiest point from the day's lecture/activities and hand it in on their way out of class.  Although this post is focused on low-tech solutions, I would be remiss if I don't mention that Socrative, a free student polling app, has an Exit Ticket feature already built in.

What other tricks do you have up your sleeves?  We'd love to hear about them!  Please share your in-class tricks to maintain student engagement by writing a comment below or by emailing me at: brandon.tenn@mccd.edu

Acknowledgements: This post was motivated by the illuminating discussions that we had prior to the start of the Fall 2017 semester during a 50 minute workshop on active learning.  In particular, I want to thank English professor Denise Rempel for sharing with us many of the innovative (and often crazy) activities she employs in her classes - specifically for sharing with me how she uses popsicle sticks to engage and colored cups to monitor student learning.

About the Author
Brandon Tenn earned his Bachelor's of Science degree in Math and Chemistry from the University of Hawai`i at Manoa in 2001 and a Ph.D. in Chemistry from UC Davis in 2009. Between 2006 and 2010 he taught at both Sierra College and the California Maritime Academy. Since 2011 he has taught math and chemistry at Merced College. He is very interested in teaching developmental and introductory science and math courses utilizing an active learning approach. He has flipped every math and chemistry course he taught since Spring 2015 and continues to research best practices for the technique based on his target student populations.