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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern


The following is one of fifty engagement tasks in Aaron's newest book Worksheets Don't Work. Each image is hyperlinked to a Google Slide that can be copied and edited as needed. The last section has been added to modify this task for virtual learning. To have upcoming blog posts in this series sent directly to your inbox, add your email address here.

When trying to generate ideas in a brainstorming session, it can be difficult to sort through everyone’s contributions. Letting every student share would be time consuming, changing the focus from gathering ideas to allowing everyone to speak in turn. This assumes, of course, that students can converse succinctly and stay on topic. When large group dynamics take over, however, the more reluctant students sit back and let the dominant students take the spotlight. What the teachers think is a class brainstorming session is usually just a small group discussion with a multitude of observers.

Think-pair-share is a tried and true cooperative learning technique that many teachers have used at one time or another. Students are given a question to answer or a prompt to consider. After a minute or two of individual think time, students pair up and share their thoughts. Think-pair-square adds another component to this technique. Students should be grouped into fours or fives. After their think time, they find a partner to share with from another group. During the share time, they not only discuss their own thoughts but also record the thoughts of their partner. When sufficient time has passed, students return to their home groups of four or five. The group members share not only their own thoughts but those of their partners. The group of four, or square, has the benefit not only of their own thinking but that of four other students whom each group member partnered with.

Why It Works

All students benefit from wait time. Even though some students can answer immediately when teachers pose a question, it doesn’t always mean that their first answers represent their best thinking. In fact, questions that can be easily answered by a majority of students without think time are most likely not worth asking. Deep, probing questions that require higher-order thinking cannot be answered quickly or simply. Students should be taught and given sufficient practice in thinking and reflecting before responding to classroom questions.

An age-old problem with asking questions in class, however, is how to give students sufficient opportunity to answer them. One method to hold students accountable for answering each question would require written responses. Yet this can quickly turn into a logistical nightmare and is extremely time-consuming. Add to that some students’ lack of writing fluency and this option quickly loses its appeal. Oral discussions, rather than written responses, hold the potential for giving teachers and students the biggest bang for their buck.

But who is answering the question? When teachers ask questions, several scenarios usually play out. Sometimes teachers take answers until they hear someone give the response they are looking for. Even though the teacher asked the entire class, only one student answered correctly. At other times, teachers allow a predetermined number of students to respond. While this can broaden the discussion, it still leaves most of the students as intellectual bystanders. Utilizing think-pair-square allows every student two critical components for deep thinking – appropriate time to gather their thoughts and an opportunity to share their answer.


Even though think-pair-square is fairly simple to implement, there are a few areas to consider before using it with your students.

1. Decide how involved this strategy will be. If you have a limited amount of time, you might use the traditional think-pair-share. If you have enough time to allow students to group up after the share time, you can use think-pair-square as described on the previous page.

2. Make sure students are grouped in fours for the square portion of the strategy. Their partner for the pair portion should not be a part of their group but instead be from a different group. The first few times you use this technique, you might need to practice it with the students. Sometimes even the simplest instructions, such as find a partner not in your group, can be mind boggling.

3. Consider if you want to preassign pairs for the students. This might be appropriate if students take too long partnering up or fights ensue because multiple people want to partner up with the same student. Additionally, you might want to strategically pair stronger students with weaker ones.

4. Think about what it is students will be thinking, pairing, and sharing about. Will it be a single question that they’ll be brainstorming multiple answers for? Will they be working on word problems for a homework assignment? The closed- or open-ended nature of the question or problem will affect how much variety will exist among student responses.

5. Determine how this strategy will affect the grading of the task, if at all. Ensure that the think portion is simply a personal reflection time and not anything that students will be graded on. The point of it is to consider options and have something to discuss later, not to produce a final answer. Student responses should change after the pairing, sharing, and squaring. Collaboration is central to this strategy and naturally will result in answers that look similar.


The students in Mrs. Fenter’s class were extremely excited about their new class pet. Mrs. Fenter had already created a rotating schedule for the hamster to go home with different students each weekend. Using their interest in their new furry pal, her class had learned a lot about hamsters over the past week. They read books about them, learning what they ate and about their various characteristics. The students worked in groups to research the different things that hamsters needed to remain healthy. They even wrote fictional stories about hamster superheroes. The only thing they couldn’t agree on was a name for the class pet.

“Students,” Mrs. Fenter began, “before we start our reading lesson I want us to take a few minutes to try and settle something. I know that everyone is super excited about our new hamster friend but we just can’t seem to agree on what to call her. To settle the issue once and for all, we are going to come up with three names and vote on them.” Hands immediately shot up into the air as students clamored to suggest their favorite names.

“No, we aren’t going to take suggestions right now. Instead, I’m going to pass out one sticky note to each student. You’ll get two minutes of silent think time to right down as many names as you can think of on the front. Make sure you only fill up the front because you’ll need the back for something else in just a moment. Remember, these are just your ideas. You’ll get to talk with your table group later.”

After the two minutes were up, Mrs. Fenter continued her directions. “Next, you need to partner up with someone who is not at your table group. Spend a few minutes sharing your ideas with each other. Each of you will need to write down at least five name ideas from your partner on the back of your sticky note. You can write more if you like but try to get at least five written down.” Students moved around the room, partnering up and sharing their ideas. Several of them had the same names as their partners and they started planning on how to make sure their choice was the final selection.

“Now that you’ve gathered some new ideas from your partner, everyone should return to your table groups. Take a moment and select the best three names on your sticky note. At least one of the three needs to be from the back of the sticky note. I want to make sure you were listening to your partner. When everyone has done that individually, your group will record those names on the piece of paper I provided. As a group, vote on the top three names on your new list. Each person will get three votes. Be prepared to share your three names with the class.”

The noise level in the room increased as the students eagerly began sharing their names. As she walked around, she noticed that the same few names showed up on most tables’ lists. After each group was done compiling their new lists, she asked them to share one name at a time. She wrote them on the board and placed check marks next to the names that appeared on multiple lists. Once all the groups had shared, there were three clear choices for the hamster’s name. She passed out slips of paper and allowed students to vote for their favorite. Whatever the result, she knew her students would feel like their voices had been heard.


The simplest way to adjust this technique is to use the base version of think-pair-share. This strategy asks students to think silently, pair up with someone else, and share their thoughts with that partner. This is useful in situations where time is limited. Additionally, not all questions or problems will lend themselves to multiple layers of discussion. In these circumstances, the most important elements of the strategy are preserved by asking students to think and then share with a partner. This not only provides students valuable time to ponder the problem, each student will have a chance to share their thinking.

Students that struggle with the content might not find think time to be extraordinarily beneficial. A coping mechanism that some students have utilized is an over-reliance on the thoughts of their peers. Taking this option away might strengthen their individual stamina but will also cause some angst. During the initial reflection time, teachers might identify these students and speak with them individually. Prompting them or providing them with conversation stems can assist them as they transition to the pairing portion of the strategy.

This technique can also be modified greatly by personalizing what students do as a result of their pairing and sharing. If teachers are interested in a final product in addition to valuable discussion, they can use a think-pair-square-share strategy. This modification begins in the traditional manner. Students think individually, pair up with another student, and share their thoughts. At this point, however, the group of four, or square, begins to work on a group product. Either with assigned roles within the group or with a more general admonition that everyone needs to help out, the previous brainstorming is directed toward a solution to be shared with the class.

Modifying This For Virtual Learning

A feature integrated into the licensed version of Zoom and (hopefully) coming soon to Google Meet and Microsoft Teams is breakout rooms. This functionality allows the host to randomly or manually assign participants into smaller meeting areas. This works great for Think-Pair-Square-Share because it allows for pockets of collaboration without ever leaving the main meeting.

Unfortunately, teachers without a licensed Zoom account have to work around this deficiency in their virtual meeting platform. If using Microsoft Teams, teachers can create sub-channels as a part of their main meeting channel. These can be the breakout rooms and teachers can invite students to join the sub-channel for a short meeting. Participants can be in one room and have up to three others on hold to easily switch back and forth.

For Google Meet, the solution is to install a Chrome extension such as Google Meet Attendees & Breakout Rooms. While Google Meet is playing catch up to Teams and Zoom, it has a loyal base of developers (both formal and informal) adding extensions for increased functionality. Whichever video meeting platform you use, breakout rooms are one of the go-to tools to make collaborative strategies work.

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