Teaching Strategy: Got 30 Seconds? Talk About It.

Career and technical education (CTE) students are asked to learn hundreds of new concepts and technical terms every year. How can CTE teachers know when their students have processed the learning correctly? How can we catch thinking errors when they occur? The answer is simple: Frequently check for understanding; challenge students with a formative assessment. Traditionally this comes in the form of Q&A sessions.

However, with a strong push for higher levels of student engagement, teachers are being asked to develop bigger tool boxes of formative strategies — tools that allow teachers to engage all students accurately and creatively. When John Hattie (2008) released his meta-analysis on the factors that impact student achievement, he used a standard effect size scale. In his work, Visible Learning, Hattie demonstrated that frequent formative assessments may be among the best instructional practices that teachers can use to impact student achievement.

For this reason, it is beneficial for teachers to have an arsenal of effective formative assessments at their disposal. Many go-to practices include traditional Q&A, exit/entrance cards, quizzes and free-writes. I would like to suggest adding the 30-second-talk-about to these more traditional approaches — as it creates equitable productive talk for all students.

The objectives are simple.

We want to gauge how much understanding students have gained and if something has been learned incorrectly. The sooner a thinking error can be identified, the better student achievement will be. Formative checks for understanding also give students an opportunity to focus on the essential information, separating the key concepts from the details surrounding it.

As an instructional coach, I like to provide teachers, whose classes I observe, with an objective snapshot of student participation. I do not make any subjective statements. I simply diagram the room, placing an X on each student place. A tally mark is given each time a student answers a teacher’s question. I use a Q to note if the students ask questions in return. At the end of an average 45-minute lecture with Q&A, only about 1/3 of students will have tally marks. It is painful to see how many students don’t have tally marks, especially if we factor in the likelihood that these patterns persist throughout the school year.

Where is the equity in this? We owe to students to give 100 percent of students a voice, 100 percent of the time, when we wish to check for understanding.

How can we do this? One very effective place to start is the 30-second talk-about. Students cannot opt out and, when they discover how fun the exercise can be, they don’t want to opt out. This teaching strategy works well because it simultaneously activates all three domains: cognitive, physical, and affective. Full of smiles and laughter, students greatly appreciate the movement and fast pace. Teachers weave in and out of students as they talk — taking mental notes of who is struggling.

The Strategy in Action

How long will it take?

The session can be as quick as five minutes or as lengthy as 20 minutes — depending on how much you elaborate on student paraphrasing.

What’s the gist?

Students take turns talking productively with a peer about a term for 30 seconds.

How It Works

  1. Pair students into groups of two.
  2. Randomly assign one student in each group the role of “talker” and the other the role of “listener.”
  3. Say, “Talkers, your task is to keep talking about the topic I assign for 30 seconds without stopping. Listeners — don’t get too excited — you are not just listening. You’re active listening, which means that you nod and smile for affirmation. Then, once the time is up, you also are the paraphraser, telling the rest of us what they said.”
  4. Start the time. Walk throughout the class, listening and assessing your students’ understanding of the concept or process. Encourage talkers to back up their words with evidence they remember from reading. Remember, you can’t have a successful talk-about unless you walk about!
  5. After the timer goes off, call on various listeners, asking them to share something their partner talked about.
  6. Switch! Listeners become talkers, and talkers listen, on a new challenging prompt.

This is a formative approach that is difficult to top. The 30-second talk about is an activity that builds a risk-taking, growth mindset type classroom culture. Some students don’t raise their hands during Q&A for fear that they may have the wrong answer, and be embarrassed. However, with the 30-second-talk-about strategy, there is safety in only having to speak to one fellow student. For the listener, safety comes from paraphrasing what they have heard. If the paraphrased comments need correcting, teachers can address both students together with probing questions, which should help to build student efficacy.

I often say to teachers, “You can’t do a talk-about unless you also do a walk-about.” This brief rhyme reminds teachers to weave through the student teams as they talk. Teachers are often surprised at just how much data they can collect in a couple 30-second time periods. Teachers collect several comments and elaborate to connect student’s different ideas. Give it a try; even the most reserved students will not feel intimidated to participate.

Sandra Adams is a teacher and instructional coach with the Career Academy, Fort Wayne Community Schools. She co-wrote the ACTE-supported book But I’m NOT a Reading Teacher!: Literacy Strategies for Career and Technical Educators with Gwendolyn Leininger. Contact her to learn how you can implement theses certification test prep and other innovative teaching strategies in your CTE classroom.

Hattie, J. (2008). Visible learning for teachers. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.