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:
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.