By Anna Schwartz
I have been teaching for a few years now, and one of the things that I am still mastering is asking the whole class a question. Usually it goes something like this: I say “How many of you agree with this statement, raise your hand.” Then some students raise their hands a little bit. The situation is worse if I want to ask a question and actually distinguish between “yay” and “nay”. Then somebody suggested using colored index cards in a technique that I call “red light/green light cards”.
It works like this: you ask each student to pick up a red index card and a green index card on their way into class every day. Now, whenever you ask them a question with a yes/no answer, you ask them to hold up the green card if they agree and the red card if they disagree.
It sounds simplistic, but it is worth trying out. Here’s how it plays out: I ask a question, students hold up their cards, and I have an instant visual read on percentages of agree and disagree. My ability to scan a room and count a few red cards or a few green cards is infinitely superior to my ability to rapidly scan and count hands that have not been raised. An additional benefit is that a question that used to involve two rounds of hand raising (how many of you agree, raise your hands, now raise your hand only if you disagree) can be done in one question. These were all expected benefits of the technique. The unexpected benefit are the creative uses of the cards student’s come up with to communicate shades of agreement. Some students hold up both cards, showing more red or less red, more green or less green to display degrees of agreement or ambivalence. Some students hold the two cards back to back, flipping the green card from back to front. My favorite moments are when students raise their card when I have not asked a question to simply contribute their agreement, assent or opinion to what I am saying, silently entering into my lecture and making it a personal conversation with me without ever having to disrupt my lecture (not that I mind disruptions, but it is nice for students to be able to communicate without the burden of having to disrupt).
In short, this is a simple (and inexpensive) technique that you can use in your classroom to improve student participation – to move student participation from the few students who are comfortable talking to total student participation!