Reflections Newsletter

Great Ideas For Teaching (GIFT) Contest, Spring 2011

By Silke Dennhardt, PhD Student, Health and Rehabilitation Sciences

Each year, the Teaching Support Centre holds a Great Ideas for Teaching (GIFT) Contest for Graduate Student Teaching Assistants (TAs). All TAs are invited to submit a brief description of an effective activity or strategy that they use while teaching. This year’s winning submissions were highly diverse, coming from a wide range of disciplines and describing ideas that ranged from short in-class activities to term-long strategies. All were creative and effective teaching techniques that promoted student learning and could easily be used by other TAs. This year’s winners did a fantastic job of presenting their Great Ideas at the annual Winter Conference on Teaching. Below, Silke Dennhardt, a PhD student in Health and Rehabilitation Sciences and one of this year’s winners, describes her Great Idea, entitled Traffic Light Feedback Cards. To read other winning submissions, see the GIFT web link:


THE PROBLEM: One challenge I faced when I began teaching was how to initiate really good and valuable group discussions. I envisioned lively, engaging discussions that went beyond a superficial level, stimulated learning and critical thinking, and in which the whole class participated. In reality, my students were often very reluctant to share their thoughts and questions in the large group format. One difficulty might have been that such discussions required students to take risks by sharing ideas that they had not yet fully developed. Moreover, from a teacher’s perspective, I often felt the students’ implicit expectation of me to ‘judge’ the content of class contributions as ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ when what I really hoped for was that students would think critically and effectively express and argue a stance. To develop critical thinking abilities, students need to be able to address dilemmas and to question themselves without worrying that their class-mates will think that they are unintelligent or ‘wrong’ (especially as contributions that take a chance often pose a great value for class learning). Reflecting on these challenges, I searched for an activity that would help me to stimulate in-class discussion. I can no longer remember the origins of this idea, but when I first used the Traffic Light Feedback Cards in class, they exceeded my expectations: I finally got the lively, fruitful, engaged class discussions that I had aimed for and that achieved my learning objectives. I have used this activity many times since then and adapted it for my own purposes.

MATERIALS: To use the Traffic Light Feedback Cards in your classroom, you will need three paper cards (red, yellow and green) for each student. The cards can be used more than once.

GETTING STARTED: Each student receives three paper cards: a red, yellow, and a green one. Each card stands for a particular stance (e.g., red card “I disagree, I wouldn’t say or do that...,” green card “I agree, I second that, I like the idea...,” yellow card “I don’t know, I am not sure about that, I can’t decide....”). After introducing the activity to the students, begin the class discussion by making a statement related to the day’s topic. Each student then selects the card that best expresses his/her stance and displays it. Students and teachers get a sense of the frequency and strength of various stances in their class regarding a particular issue. This timely, visual ‘snapshot’ provides a valuable entrance point into further discussion. For example, referring to particular card colours, teacher and students can ask why a particular stance was taken. This activity further generates participation without putting individual students on the spot, as the teacher can ask for a particular colour (e.g. “I’d like to hear a ‘green’ opinion,” “What do people who raised a red card think?”). The strength of this activity is that it allows students to see and become aware of each other’s positions. They can find ‘allies’ in arguing a particular stance and get a sense about the class as a whole. Below are some variations that I have used.

OTHER USES: Let students who made a contribution to the discussion

1. decide if they want to hear an opinion that supports their stance (i.e. choose to hear a statement with the same colour), or one that opposes their stance and brings in a new perspective. Such choice provides students with a sense of control that can make participating in a class discussion less stressful. You can also let students pose a new statement to the group for card feedback, bringing a new issue into the discussion.

2. Encourage students to reflect on diverse perspectives by asking them to brainstorm arguments for card colours other than their own.

3. Pair students for small group work based on the colour of a previously shown card. For example, pair students who have the same colour cards to allow them to strengthen their stance and prepare for further discussion. Or pair students with different colour cards to give them an opportunity to compare and deepen their arguments and to understand other perspectives.

4. Use feedback-cards to check on student comprehension of the day’s learning objectives: (e.g. “Can I get feedback about your familiarity with this concept after today’s lesson? green: “Go ahead!”, yellow: “I need more practice”, red: “I am still struggling”).

5. Feedback-cards can quickly resolve organizational matters: (e.g. “Do we need a break now?”, “Will small groups be ready to present in five minutes?”)

OVERALL: What I personally like the most about the Traffic Light Feedback Card activity is that it is a very flexible, easy activity with low preparation that

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