Active Learning Instructional Strategy: Think-Pair-Share

Overview and Introduction: The WHAT and WHO

As detailed in the Active Learning: Overview and Introduction Quick Reference Guide, active learning is a term used to describe instructional methods that increase student involvement and engagement in the learning process.  In contrast to traditional instructor-centered delivery, where there is a passive transmission of facts and ideas through lecture, active learning incorporates a variety of instructional strategies that purposefully shift the learning environment to be more student-centered, focused on what the student will be ‘doing’ during the learning process.

Think-Pair-Share is a learning strategy developed by Frank Lyman that allows students the time and structure for thinking about a given topic.  

Think. The instructor poses a question related to the content (ideally the question is challenging and requires higher-level thinking skills of analysis, evaluation, or synthesis).  Students think about the question on their own for a short period of time (usually 1-3 minutes).

Pair. Students partner up with someone seated in close proximity (or small groups online) to discuss their solution to their answer and ask questions of their partner.  

Share. Students select the partner who will share a summary of what they discussed with a larger group/whole class.  Students reflect on how the answers presented by others have changed/modified/improved their own original answer and understanding of the concept.  

Think-Pair-Share works well in nearly every type of course, and with all types of learners.  While some accommodations need to be made for the share portion in large courses (tips below in the HOW section), the strategy engages more students actively than most other large-course instructional delivery techniques as it requires that 50% of the students be engaged in actively explaining their ideas during the pair discussion phase. 

*Please note that the Quick-Reference Guide you are reading explains one Active Learning Classroom idea.  For a complete list of strategies, please see the QRG Active Learning Ideas for Instruction.

Implementation and Timing: The WHEN, WHERE, and HOW

There is no ‘right time’ to use Think-Pair-Share.  It can be implemented at the beginning of a course as a way to break the ice and encourage student-to-student interaction, during lecture-style classes as a way to improve student reflection, engagement, and attentiveness, or at the end of the class session to reflect on content mastery.  While there is no right answer to when questions should be included, consider research on human attention span and try to include some type of activity (Think-Pair-Share or others) every 15 minutes or so to break up long segments of lecture and re-engage learners.  It may also be helpful to set the expectation of active participation from the beginning of the course.  Suddenly switching from a lecture-only course to one filled with activities half way through the course may be confusing and frustrating for students.

Think-Pair-Share is a strategy that was developed for in-class instruction; however, it can easily be adapted for use in hybrid or online courses where students are attending synchronously (online at the same time).  Suggestions on how to manage Think-Pair-Share when some students are in person and others are remote, are provided below in the HOW section.  If the course is completely online with students working at their own pace, other strategies such as discussion boards may be a better option. 

Plan for Implementation

    • Start small, begin early, and choose low-risk activities.  Think-Pair-Share is an excellent active learning strategy to implement in courses as it takes very little prep time, is easy for students to understand (‘low-risk’), and does not require a large amount of classroom time to implement.  
    • Identify topics/class sessions that would benefit from Think-Pair-Share.  This may include class sessions that have a lot of time spent lecturing or topics that students consistently find challenging. 
    • Explain to students why you are incorporating Think-Pair-Share.  You may wish to share with students that these strategies have been shown to improve content comprehension, retention, and metacognitive skills, as well as providing opportunities to practice verbalizing their answers (a skill useful in their future career) and the chance to interact more with their peers.  

Modification Ideas

Large classes.  Think-Pair-Share is an excellent activity in large classes as it engages a higher percentage of students than the traditional lecture and question format of teaching.  That said, it can still be more challenging to manage Think-Pair-Share in large classes, particularly during the share portion of the activity.  These strategies should help: 

Remember that the value of the activity is primarily in the pair portion, when students talk about their answers with their peer.  If you have a very large class and sharing out answers feels daunting, you can have students skip the share portion altogether or call only on certain groups to share.  You may wish to walk around during the pair discussion portion and note which groups you would like to have share, or simply call on groups randomly to share their ideas with the class. Remember that limiting the number of groups that share will save time and is a perfectly acceptable modification to the activity for large classes. 

Have students share to larger groups, but not the whole class.  When it comes time to share, ask students to merge with the pairs around them and share to this slightly larger group.  This will allow the students to hear ideas of additional peers without taking up class time of sharing to the entire class.  

Have students share to a slack channel, Canvas discussion board prompt, or virtual corkboard like Linoit. This option provides the opportunity for all groups to share, but does not take up additional class time for large classes. 

Hybrid or remote students.  If you have some students participating remotely, this activity can be managed through Zoom breakout rooms for the pair and share portions.  You may also wish to have students share on a digital platform like slack, Canvas, Linoit to ease the coordination challenges of breakout rooms in Zoom. 

Add Writing. One modification that you may wish to implement is to have students complete a Think-Write-Pair-Share. This provides students with an opportunity to practice their writing and can help students to solidify their own thoughts before discussing them with a peer.  Here is a sample handout that could be used in the Think-Write-Pair-Share process.

After Class

Reflect – While the class session is still fresh in your mind, reflect on the class session and Think-Pair-Share activity. Did the activity improve student comprehension of the topic? Was it successful in encouraging verbalization of ideas and/or peer-to-peer interactions? What updates or changes can you make to the activity for future classes based on this round of implementation?

Rationale and Research: The WHY

Active learning, rooted in the theory of constructivism, champions the idea that students should actively participate in the learning process, better preparing students for the current workplace environment and encouraging them to develop Entrepreneurial Mindset skills of curiosity, making connections, and creating value in their learning.  

Think-Pair-Share:

    • Engages students more fully in the learning process because they have to do something
    • Results in better retention and higher-level learning because they are involved rather than sitting passively
    • Provides opportunity to practice verabaliving learning first in a pair, then to the larger class

Active learning (in this case Think-Pair-Share) improves student achievement (retention and comprehension) by allowing students opportunity to practice and apply newly acquired skills, reinforces key concepts, builds in metacognition, and provides more frequent and immediate feedback to students on their level of content comprehension. It also creates more opportunities for social and collaborative interaction, two factors which have been shown to be particularly important for underrepresented students in STEM disciplines (Crescente & Lee, 2011).

Additional Resources and References

Interested in learning more?  Here are additional readings on active learning topics as well as citations and links to articles referenced in this document.