In a previous blog post, I listed some of the ways that index cards are useful in class. I mentioned a page by Cathy Davidson describing a step-by-step way to use index cards in a think-pair-share activity. As I wrote the post, I was working up the nerve to try her technique in a talk I was planning for late September. That talk is now in the past, and in this post, I’ll report on how the method worked.
My audience was about 200 students and faculty at a community college in Tennessee. An attendant handed each audience member an index card (without explanation) upon entering the auditorium. I talked about my academic history in the first part of the talk, and then the middle portion was intended to help the students understand why biology matters. I hoped that the think-pair-share activity would infuse some energy into the crowd at around the halfway point of the talk.
To begin the activity, I asked audience members to take 90 seconds to write a list of the three most important problems that biology can solve. For the next 90 seconds, each person was to pair up with someone else and decide which of the six items on their combined lists was the most important. That part of the activity led to some enthusiastic but brief discussions. They were done about 10 seconds early, which led to a bit of an awkward pause until the timer went off.
Next, I asked people to call out what they had identified as the most important problem. The first person to answer said “Cancer.” I asked how many others had chosen the same thing, and about 25% of the hands went up. I had a little vignette on cancer to share after this activity, so I didn’t follow up much on that topic. I asked for other answers, and they called out topics like genetic illnesses, birth defects, infectious disease, pollution, and world peace. “World peace?” I asked. “Can you please follow up on that?” The respondent made such an eloquent and concise connection between biology, agriculture, food availability, and the stability of nations that the entire audience applauded. It was impressive and very gratifying.
When I wrote my original post, I was frightened by the thought of losing control of “my” talk. But I am glad I incorporated this activity into my presentation. It was fun hearing the audience members speculate about the reason for the index card before the presentation started, and I think everyone enjoyed hear the range of ideas about why biology is important. My only regret is that I forgot to collect the index cards after the presentation was over. I would have enjoyed seeing the complete, unfiltered collection of audience ideas.