Research School Network: How effective is Think Pair Share? A quick dive into some of the many benefits and potential pitfalls of using Think Pair Share in the classroom.

How effective is Think Pair Share?

A quick dive into some of the many benefits and potential pitfalls of using Think Pair Share in the classroom.

by Durrington Research School
on the

I recently wrote a blog on teacher’s perceptions of their questioning versus the reality of their practice (you can read this blog here), and since writing this blog I have been thinking more and more about my own perceptions of my own practice. When it comes to questioning I would like to think (although based on the findings of the last blog this could be false!) that I ask a lot of questions in class, I predominantly use cold calling and I try my best to give students time to think and formulate their answer before requesting a response. However, Chris Runeckles’ (Director of Durrington Research School) recent INSET presentation on participation and think ratio gave me food for thought. Based on the work of Lemov these two terms can be defined as:

- Participation Ratio: how many of your students are participating and how often?

- Think Ratio: when they are participating, how hard are they thinking?

Reflecting on my own practice I think the participation ratio in my classes would be strong, students know that cold calling is used regularly and that all students will be expected to contribute to the lesson (with no opt out option), however I have a nagging concern around the concept of think ratio”. By this I mean, I have always questioned who is doing the thinking in my classroom? If I immediately call on students to answer questions have I given them sufficient time to formulate their ideas, while if I give them time to discuss their ideas with a peer does the discussion become dominated by just a few? Furthermore, once I call on one student do the vast majority then switch off or choose to fall in line and agree with the first answer given? Finally do all students really participate in the thinking? No opt out is of course massively beneficial, but I do wonder if some of my students realise that they will be supported to answer questions (through cues/​prompts/​reshaping of questions etc) if they can’t answer the initial question and as such do not worry about thinking prior to this.

In his INSET talk Chris talked about how using strategies such as Think Pair Share and mini whiteboards can allow for a greater deal of participation, thinking and also potentially provide support or reassurance to some students that may otherwise be anxious about participation. There has been lots said and written about mini white boards, so I thought I would focus more on Think Pair Share (TPS) (and perhaps circle back to mini whiteboards later!).

TPS was originally proposed by Professor Frank Lyman in 1981, and ever since it has been a common feature of teaching practice. It is argued that TPS allows for a greater level of engagement, and therefore more academic success. TPS prolongs wait time between a teacher’s question and the response request, thus enhancing high order thinking, while TPS also enables peer validation which may increase student’s confidence in their answers. The increase in wait time is particularly beneficial, perhaps, to lower starting point students who are disadvantaged when the wait time between question and response is short as this benefits higher performing students who are able to elaborate faster and therefore respond earlier.

In a study of 4819th grade students across 4 German secondary schools Mundelese and Jurkowski (2021) examined how the use of TPS effects participation in class. Now it is important to note that their measure of participation is not perfect (and they admit this themselves) as they recorded the effects of TPS on student hand raising as a proxy of participation. In the study, students were split into 3 groups; one group completed a full TPS cycle before being asked to respond to questions, the second were allowed time to think following a question but not discuss this with a peer, while the third group were expected to answer questions immediately. The results of the study indicated that TPS increased the likelihood of hand raising, with it being 1.7 x higher in the TPS group than the immediate response group. It was suggested that this increase may be due to TPS boosting student’s confidence sufficiently for more of them to participate. Meanwhile students also reported low levels of anxiety in the TPS group than the other two groups.

These results provide empirical support to the notion that TPS improve student engagement and student confidence to share. At the same time the increased wait time it naturally creates may allow for more developed answers and thinking, while also enabling staff to circulate the room and listen in on discussions to formatively assess their class. However, there are still some of the questions I listed above that linger. For example, how do I ensure all students are equally participating in these discussions? Are the discussions being led by one member of the group? When it comes to the share stage are students still falling in line with the first answer given to avoid having to think too hard? How do I know that students are actually thinking during the think and pair stages?

My concerns led me to looking for any research on how to ensure effective use of TPS, and I came across an article by Cooper et al (2021) that suggested instructors needed to reconsider the share element of think pair share. The article began with some scenarios that aligned with my previously mentioned concerns, for example one scenario described how the share element of TPS could be dominated by just a few members and the points raised by many students may never be shared more widely. The article goes on to consider some misconceptions around TPS, mostly focused on the share element. One of these misconceptions is that the share element is an effective way for teachers to figure out what students are thinking. Unfortunately, research has shown that often the high-quality discussion across small groups in the pair stage is then missing in the whole group share, meaning that the share stage is not actually a true reflection of the first two stages and therefore students understanding.

Another misconception addressed in the article is that the share stage can motivate students to participate in the thinking and pair stages, however this may not be the case, especially if students are asked to volunteer contributions to the share stage, or as previously discussed they have cottoned on to the fact they will be highly supported/​scaffolded to respond by us as teachers – therefore reducing the need for initial thinking/​participation.

These issues do not mean that we should throw TPS out the window, but it does raise questions about how we use it. For example, I know that I use TPS pretty regularly in my lessons, however on reflection I suspect I fall foul of many of the issues listed above – particularly that first misconception that the share stage is reflective of the paired discussions that have been going on. To mitigate against this issue, we perhaps need a better way of monitoring the think and pair stage of the cycle. We may be able to do this through circulating the room and listening in on conversations, but the reality of doing this in a large class, hearing and the memorising every pertinent point/​error discussed is pretty challenging. So, I said earlier that I may circle back to mini whiteboards and here I am doing so! I will be the first to admit that previously I have been reluctant to use mini whiteboards, anxious of the faff handing them out may cause and worried that they may split my student’s attention. But the more I think about participation and thinking ratios, the more I think about wait time, the more I think about encouraging my more anxious students to participate and the more I think about making TPS more effective, the more I am coming around to the role mini white boards can play in this. By writing on mini whiteboards during the thinking and pair stages students are engaging in a visible and concrete form of participation, thus enabling teachers to better identify those not thinking” during this stage. It also allows for high quality formative assessment, and provides a prompt for both students and teachers in the share stage. Students can review their whiteboards to prompt their discussion and seek reassurance, while the notes on the whiteboards has the potential to ensure that teachers can pick out points that are not immediately shared to the whole class but would enrich the discussion.

Ben Crockett (@BenCrockett1)

Assistant Director of Durrington Research School.

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