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Get the Students Talking and Doing!

Get the Students Talking and Doing!

As I have visited classrooms and observed teachers teaching their classes, I am noticing a very common trend. The learning their students are doing is very passive and somewhat compliant. In a quote attributed to many different sources from Confucius to Benjamin Franklin says, “Tell Me and I Forget; Teach Me and I May Remember; Involve Me and I Learn” and it has been proven many times and, in many ways, to be true.


It used to be the standard norm in a classroom in rows all the students working quietly and being polite and well behaved was the perfect well managed classroom. They now know that this is NOT true! A classroom where students are discussing the topic of the lesson, sharing their thoughts and views with many students around the classroom with a teacher monitoring discussions, asking questions to direct the thinking, and moving around the room is a much better and much more productive classroom.

students enjoying class together

Engage and Participation

What are you doing as a teacher to facilitate students asking the questions and students generating and leading the discussions? I too, many times fell into the teacher trap of presenting the lesson and then saying, “Are there any questions?” Of course, rarely were there ever any meaningful questions if any questions at all. I have learned that instead of being passive and leaving it up to the students to decide if they were going to engage and participate in the learning, that I had to set up a classroom where the students had to be involved and engaged. That sounds difficult but it really isn’t. I model this when I am presenting professional development. Instead of saying, “Does this make sense?” or “Are there any questions?” I have the participants actively get involved. How do you do this, you ask? It is easy.


Passive vs. Active

Instead of asking what you want students to do as a question where they can choose to get actively involved or not, form it as a statement where they must be involved. So here are some easy replacements for things teachers frequently say:


Passive Teacher Talk – Are there any questions?

Active and Engaging Teacher Talk – Write down a question you want to ask or could ask about what was just presented.


Passive Teacher Talk – Do you understand what was just presented?

Active and Engaging Teacher Talk – Write down the 3 more important ideas or concepts that were presented. Compare what you wrote with people around you and see what is the same and what is different.


Passive Teacher Talk – Does this example make sense?

Active and Engaging Teacher Talk – Create a similar example and explain/show how it relates to the example shown in class.


Passive Teacher Talk – Any question about yesterday’s assignment before I check it or collect it?

Active and Engaging Teacher Talk – Which problem was the most difficult for you on yesterday’s assignment and why was it difficult for you? Which problem was the easiest for you on yesterday’s assignment and why was it easy for you?


As you can tell the passive teacher talk allows the student to decide if they are going to participate and engage. The active and engaging teacher talk requires the student to respond and to participate. After all, isn’t that what we want and are trying to get our students to do? 

young students working together on a project

Cooperative Learning

Most teachers are aware of Cooperative learning techniques. Most have heard of Think – Pair – Share. I like to add two other steps to this process if you want an even more productive method. Think – Write  – Pair – Share – Compare. By adding the writing, you will get much more thought out and in depth thinking and responses. By adding the “compare” students will get a much more diverse range of answers and expand their thinking by something they have heard. Another interesting cooperative learning technique is Respond – Review – Critique. The teacher poses a question to the students, they must write their responses, then hand it to another student to review their response and make any suggestions and/or changes to the response, finally it is handed to a third student who critiques both the response and the review. Basically, it puts three sets of eyes and feedback on the response to the question the teacher has posed. This one takes some practice to work well in the classroom.


How Do You Know?

It is all about turning your questions into statements that require the students to respond and not opt out of the discussion. Regularly when I have observed a teacher teach a lesson, I ask them to tell me how they thought the lesson went and if they thought the students understood the lesson that was presented. They answer my questions and then I follow up with one more question. I ask them how do you know if they understood the lesson? Many times, I get the response that they could tell because the students started on the assignment and there were not any questions. Other times, I get the response, I could tell by the students’ reactions and the nodding approval from the students. I then ask do you really know or are you just assuming? (We all know the problems with assuming!)



I share with the teachers some easy and quick ways to know and not guess or assume if the students really understood the lesson. It is simple, ask the students to write down the 3-5 most important ideas or concepts that were taught in the lesson on a quarter sheet of paper. Collect and read the responses. You will know if the students understood what was being taught. No guessing and no assuming at all.  evidence by what was written by the students. Do not get discouraged the first few times you do this as it may surprise you what little they may have absorbed from the lesson. 


Another way to tell if a lesson was understood, and an easy way to help both yourself as a teacher and any student who was absent missing the lesson, is to ask the students on a half sheet of paper to write the most important ideas/concepts from the lesson and include one example for a student who was absent from class that day. Not only will you know if the students who were present understood the lesson but if they did you can just hand those papers to the students who were absent and tell them their peers provided the information, so they didn’t miss anything while they were gone. A definite win-win for both the teacher and the students!


Basically, structure your lessons so the students must be involved and either discussing or writing responses to what you want them to do. Not just answer simple low-level recall and fact gathering questions. Here are some ideas for ways you can give statements and very leading active questions you can use in a math classroom.


  1. Write three ways the problems on yesterday’s assignment were all the same.

  2. Write three ways the problems on yesterday’s assignment were all different.

  3. Write three math skills that you have learned in previous math classes/lessons that you used on yesterday’s assignment.

  4. Tell me everything you can about _______________.

  5. Write down a question you think will be on the next quiz from the lesson or from yesterday’s assignment.

  6. Write down two questions you think will be on the next test from the lesson or from yesterday’s assignment.

  7. Write a word or story problem that would use a problem from yesterday’s assignment.

  8. Write down where you could have found help to work the problems from yesterday’s assignment if you were not at school.

  9. Outside of math class, where might you find problems being used from yesterday’s assignment.

  10. Write 2 questions you wished you would have asked or could have asked about the lesson or yesterday’s assignment.


These are just some examples of ways to actively get the students involved and discuss the lesson you are or have presented. If the students are involved and engaged, even if it is a little contrived or forced by you as the teacher, requiring them to do something instead of sitting back passively absorbing the lesson, you will be amazed at how much more the students will remember and be able to do. See what you can do by changing your questions into statements and requiring the students to participate and get interact with what you are teaching.



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