Tags: Classroom Teacher | Student Voice | Teaching and Learning

Wouldn’t we love to know, to really know, what our students think of their lessons? Yet it’s so hard for us to ask, and so hard for them to answer, that we often don’t try. Thoughtboards are a quick and highly effective way to make feedback fun.

As my class was leaving the lesson, Damian turned back. “Thanks Sir”, he said with a smile, “That was a really good lesson”. I remember the incident distinctly, because this sort of thing doesn’t often happen. The trouble was, being so taken aback, I didn’t think to ask him why. What had made it so good? It was an opportunity missed. His next lesson was two days later, and by then the moment had gone.

Whatever you do, it’s important to get feedback. Feedback is the engine of improvement, and the truth of this is widely recognised. My garage sends a “customer experience survey” with every bill. My MP runs focus groups and opinion polls. As teachers, however, perhaps we do too little to seek the opinions of our students, and we are the poorer for it. They, more than anyone else, can tell us what we need to know.

Usually this is because we are fearful of what they might say. After all, most of our students are children, and children are notoriously thoughtless, silly, and cruel. However, they can also be very perceptive and disarmingly honest. The “thoughtboards” technique is a simple way to find out what students really think, without embarrassment. It provides a context in which serious and considered comments are encouraged, and foolishness is rare. It is a very powerful tool to support improvements in teaching and learning.

The whole point about this technique is that it produces more enjoyable and more effective lessons for us all. My year 9 group provides a good example. Our first topic, “Forces and Movement”, went pretty well. Behaviour was good, they worked hard, and their test grades were right on target – but something was missing, and it was getting to be tedious.

After the test we did some self-evaluation and action-planning, and then a thoughtboard session to find out which activities had helped them most. “Experiments” was a big winner, with “Making Models” and even “You Explaining It” also attracting support. They were more or less indifferent to the videos, the ICT and the textbooks. Every last one of them thought that “Writing” was quite useless, even the girls who were always so good at it!

Putting my doubts aside I set out the second topic as almost a writing-free zone. We did some, of course, perhaps to make the links on a mind map, or to fill the speech bubbles of a cartoon, but only a little. Most of the time we were doing experiements, or watching experiements, or talking about them. It had become quite a noisy class, but they smiled a lot. There wasn’t a great deal in their excercise books, but I began to hope there might be rather more in their heads – and so it proved.

Their test results improved, their self-evaluations were more positive, and a repeat of the thoughtboard exercise produced much better balanced results. “Mind Maps” and “Discussion” had joined the positive board, and far fewer complained about writing. The spirit of the class had changed for the better, not just because of what they had told me, but also because they had the chance to tell it. We had started on the road to becoming a ‘learning team’.

How to use Thoughtboards

Thoughtboards are a quick and easy way to find out what people really think. All you need is a display board and “Post-it” notes of different colours. The ones shaped like speech bubbles are ideal, but any will do. The key is to decide exactly what you want to know, and how you should put your question. In the example we have described in this article the teacher gave each student a yellow note and a blue one…

“Think of all the activities I’ve used to teach this topic. Pick out the one that most helped you to learn, and the one that helped the least. Write the most helpful one on the yellow post-it and the least helpful one on the blue post-it. Don’t write your name, just the activities. When you’re finished, come and stick your post-its on these boards.”

An open question like this can be difficult for weaker students. They may end up saying nothing! For them a closed question may be more effective…

”Look at this list of activities, and pick out the one that most helped you to learn…”

It’s important to then give the students enough time to study the boards and reflect on them. Ideally you might leave them in place for a few days, and then take a little time to discuss them in class and make your own comments. Because the thoughts on the board are anonymous students can say what they think without needing to impress you or each other, but because the process is so public, they know their views are valued. As we have worked with thoughtboards we have found more and more uses for them, and not just with students! Here are some examples of thoughtboards in action.

  • At the end of a “Superlearners Day” for a whole year group … “What was the best thing you learned today?”
  • Having set aside part of your notice board … “If you have a question or topic that you’d like me to put into a future lesson, leave me a note on this board, anytime!”
  • After a tutorial discussion about behaviour at breaks … “What would you most LIKE to do at break?”
  • As a lesson plenary … “What was the most important thing in this lesson?”
  • As a demonstration of thoughtboards during a presentation to the leadership team … “What are the best and worst things about senior team meetings?”

Thoughtboards can tell you so much. You only have to try them once to be convinced of it.

Tim Gamble leads Natural Sciences and Technology at Northampton Academy, and is a past winner of the Institute of Physics Teacher’s Award.

Karen Faulkner leads Key Stage 4 at Northampton Academy. She is an accredited UFA trainer and specialises in advanced teaching and learning techniques.

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