Instructional Techniques

Below is a sampling of collaborative learning techniques Dr. Conner uses to stimulate student engagement and foster meaningful discussions of course material.

The Human Barometer[1]

Designate a continuum with one extreme (at one end of the blackboard or room) being “Agree” and the other (at the other end of the blackboard or room) being “Disagree.” Read aloud a statement and ask the students to move to and stand at a point on the continuum that reflects their stance on the issue. Then students say why they are standing there.  As students speak, other students or the speakers themselves can change positions, if what they hear or say changes their minds, and then they can talk about that. Afterwards, debrief/discuss what students learn from the activity.

Silent Board Discussion

After you give the instructions, there should be no talking out loud at all during this activity. Write a key term or statement on the blackboard and circle it.  Invite students to come up to the board and define/discuss the term by drawing lines out from the circle (like spokes from the center of a wheel), writing a response at the end of the spoke, and circling it. As responses are added to the board, students can draw lines out from those circled responses and “speak” to them. When students have finished writing, give them a few minutes to read what is up on the board.  Then talk out loud about it, referring to what people have written.

Gallery Walk

Put students in groups with no more than 2-3 per group, and give each a piece of butcher paper, colored pens, scissors, tape, colored post-it notes, etc.  Ask them to create a poster on an assigned topic, problem, or concept. (You can have everyone in the course interpret the same topic; or you might assign different topics/theories/problems to each group.) After the posters are completed, have 1 group member stand by his/her poster to explain it and answer questions, while the other group member rotates around the room to take in the other posters; after a certain period of time, have the two group members switch roles. Wrap up with a whole group reflection on how the posters differed in their interpretations/approaches/or content.


Put students into pairs or small groups. Hand each group a folder, on the outside of which is stapled a question /problem/passage to analyze. Each folder should have a different question/problem etc. Give the students a set amount of time to write the answer as a group on a separate sheet of paper. When the time is up, ask the students to slip their group’s answer inside the folder and then pass the folder clockwise to the next pair or group. Without opening the folder to look at the previous group’s response, the next group starts to formulate its answer. The process repeats until each folder contains several separate answers. The final group is then tasked with opening the folder, reading all the answers, comparing them and synthesizing across them for the strongest possible response, which they then present to the class orally.


Students form two concentric circles with equal numbers of people in each, with the students on the inside circle facing the students on the outside circle. Read aloud a provocative statement from an assigned text, or give students slips of paper with statements/problems/issues/challenges/ formulas/hypotheses on them, and have the students facing one another talk for three (or so) minutes about the statement/problem/hypothesis/etc.  Then ask one circle to rotate one step to the left, either ask students to discuss the same statement/problem/hypothesis with a new partner or read or pass out another one, and have students talk with the new person they are facing. Rotate three or four times so students have the chance to talk to three or four different people. After students return to their seats, discuss what they gained from engaging with several different people on the same topic or on the series of topics.

Washington Week Discussions

This style discussion is based on the PBS show, Washington Week in Review. It can help to show a clip (4 minutes or less) of the show (available online) before trying this activity. In advance of class, ask all students to read all assigned material, but assign pairs of students to pay special attention to one particular chapter/article/aspect of the reading, so that with their partner(s), they become the experts of that chapter/article/topic. At the beginning of class, allow students to meet with their partner(s) to a) review their assigned area and anticipate questions they might be asked to answer about it and b) to develop or settle upon questions for each of the other groups that are designed to elicit and analyze the most important/interesting material from that group’s reading/focal area. Then, assume the role of Gwen Ifill, moderating a conversation among the whole class, in which each small group responds to questions from you and the others for approximately 7-10 minutes before you shift focus to the next group. If appropriate, end with a whole group reflection on the entire set of readings/topics.


Assign students to various groups, each of which is tasked with responsibility for a specific theory, concept, or reading. Make sure each group has the same number of students in it. After sufficient time has elapsed for the students to develop robust understanding of the area for which they are responsible (and for you to check their understandings through formative assessment techniques), have the students count off within each group. Use the numbers to rearrange them in new groups, composed of one member from each of the initial groups. In these new groups, each member must “teach” the group about the topic they addressed in the previous group.

[1] Many of these strategies are adapted with permission from Alison Cook-Sather and the Bryn Mawr College Teaching and Learning Together Institute