Sticky notes as a teaching and lab meeting tool

Last week, I attended a Software Carpentry workshop that Pat Schloss and I organized at Michigan. I will have a more comprehensive post about the workshop some time in the future, but, for now, wanted to focus on one teaching technique I picked up at the workshop that is brilliantly simple and effective.

Prior to the workshop, the instructors asked if I could bring sticky notes in two colors: green or blue and red or pink*. They asked me to bring enough notes to have a total of four of each color per attendee. I was happy to oblige, even though I didn’t really know what they were going to be used for.

As it turns out, they were used — very effectively — to keep tabs on whether students were following along with the lesson. When my neighbor and I were following along with the git lesson, this is what our computers looked like:


When I ran into trouble with running some commands, this is what my computer looked like:IMG_1949

One of the instructors (the wonderful Kara Woo) noticed right away and came over to help out.

With this system, the instructors and helpers could float around the room, quickly identifying who needed assistance. It worked really well.

I could see this working in classes where students are working at computers or in small groups. I could also see it working in some lab meeting settings — for example, if we’re working on reading through a particularly challenging paper, or when we have a stats boot camp lab meeting.

Then, at the end of each (half-day) session, the instructors used the sticky notes to get feedback. They had us write something that we enjoyed or worked well on the green sticky, and something that we thought could be improved on the red sticky. This also seems like it could be useful in small to moderately sized classes to get feedback at the end of class. In particular, I’ve been really interested in having students write about the muddiest point from that day’s class. This seems like a good way to do that in a smaller class. Sadly, I don’t think this approach will work for my 600 student Intro Bio course.

Via twitter, Greg Wilson (founder of Software Carpentry) said they also use a three sticky note system for meetings. With this system, each person at the meeting gets three sticky notes. Each time they speak, that costs one sticky note. When all three are gone, they can’t speak again until everyone has used at least one sticky note (that is, has spoken at least once), at which point everyone goes back to having three sticky notes. This seems like a great way to encourage even participation. I hate when I feel like I’m doing a lot of the talking at lab meetings, and this would be a good way to even out participation without putting people on the spot as much as the popcorn system we’ve used does. It also seems like it could work in discussion-based courses or reading groups. I’m looking forward to using these techniques! All hail the sticky note!


*It did occur to me that having red and green sticky notes could cause problems for people with colorblindness. Given the particular colors of the notes I got (the green was a greenish blue) and that it was a Women in Science and Engineering workshop, I wasn’t too worried about this for this particular application.

7 thoughts on “Sticky notes as a teaching and lab meeting tool

  1. Nice post, Meg. Related to the final paragraph of the post… I use poker chips in my seminar course on disease ecology to help equalize discussion time. We meet 2x per week for 80 min each class and generally discuss 2 papers from the primary literature per class (students facilitate, I also lead some, etc.). Each student (n=12) gets 3 poker chips and every time they ask a question or are the 1st to answer a question, they put a chip in the pot. When they are out, they can no longer do either of the above. They can still talk, but they cant be the 1st. It helps equalize the discussion time among students and it helps me in assessing the quality of student comments. By counting poker chips at the end of a paper, I can quickly assess whether a student was contributing novel comments to the discussion (= no poker chips) or taking a passive role and exclusively following up on other people’s ideas (= 2-3 poker chips left).

  2. Oh, that’s an amazing idea! Next time I get put in charge of teaching undergrads R, I am so totally handing out post-it notes. The normal “raise your hand if you’re having trouble” system doesn’t differentiate between “I’m having trouble, but can still do things, maybe” (i.e., people who would like their hands and attention to remain at their computer rather than trying to flag the instructor) and “I am completely stuck,” nor is there a sensible way for a lecturer to figure out whether the class is following the coding without having to interrupt the lecture itself.

    I am less enthusiastic about post-it notes for meetings, as I can think of plenty of situations — particularly for the very shy — in which a person could attend a meeting, journal club, reading group, etc, and get a lot out of the meeting, and even contribute productively to the meeting, without having to say a word. If those people knew they would be forced to speak in such a situation, they might choose not to attend, presumably not the intended consequence of the sticky note system.

    • I used sticky notes in a fun way for a different take on a class discussion/presentation. I had a small, upper level plant ecology class do a mock grant proposal as one of their projects, and I had scheduled several “hand-in” dates for their work so that they could get feedback as they developed their research questions. One of the early assignments was to develop their research objectives; so I wanted them to chose a study system, a problem and something that they could study that could be a solution/partial solution to the problem. Rather than getting each person to come up to the front of the class, or going around the room one-by-one, we played a game of broken telephone, facilitated by sticky notes. So each person wrote their name on the front of the note, like a name tag, and presented their project to their neighbour. Say Jill presented to Jack to start off. When Jill was finished telling Jack about her project, Jack wrote his name on the back of the note, and then became responsible for presenting Jill’s project to the next student, say Tom. Then, Tom would take over from Jack, adding his name to the back of the “Jill” sticky note once he had presented it. And so on until every student had heard about every project. It was a great activity to practice listening and effective communication. I allowed students to ask clarification questions from the project originators if they realized there was something really missing/broken from the projects. The students really loved this exercise, and it gave them a chance to laugh.

      It could be altered as an exercise in a larger class by having students break into groups of ten or so. Or it could be used by having students present one of a set of problems/examples (for instance, you could have ten case studies, and have each student assigned to one of them). I think it was the silliest having the students “be” one of their classmates though.

      • I love this idea! I taught a class at Georgia Tech where this would have worked really well. I will share the idea with my GT colleagues!

    • Yes, the challenge is to encourage even participation without forcing people to speak up when they don’t want to. When we’ve done “popcorn” lab meetings (where everyone has to speak once before someone goes a second time), it didn’t seem too awkward, and gave the more shy students a chance to ask questions or contribute to the discussion in a way that they normally wouldn’t. But it working probably depends on having a good group dynamic going in the first place. Starting out right away with this might turn some people off, as you said.

  3. Pingback: Getting WiSE: Reflections on a Software Carpentry bootcamp | Practical Data Management for Bug Counters

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