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2 Strategies for Distributing Turns Equitably

One common formative assessment method is a whole-class Q&A session. Done right, it can provide you with valuable information; not done right, it can provide students a chance to zone out and/or misbehave.

Let’s look at two techniques I use to randomly designate—to distribute turns equitably.

Teachers’ Thoughts on Popsicle Sticks

In an inservice workshop I was facilitating, we had discussed how (1) telling students to raise a hand and wait to be called on limits participation to only those few students who always know the answers, and (2) allowing student callouts limits participation to the fastest and the bravest.

Then someone mentioned popsicle sticks as a way to distribute turns, and one teacher made this response:

“I tried them three times, and they don’t work. I made a lovely multicolored set of sticks, each with a student’s name. I’d ask a question, randomly draw a stick from the cup, call on that student, set that stick aside to make sure I was being fair in calling on all students, and then go to the next question. I could never get through more than a few students before the class lost focus and misbehavior started.” 

Here’s what another teacher had to say:

“I had the same problem. But I solved it by making another set of sticks with ‘up’ and ‘down’ ends, starting with all of them up, and after calling on a student, placing that stick back in the cup upside down—and I always pull at least one down-ended stick to keep kids thinking they could be called on again. The problem is setting aside the sticks after you use them. Then those students feel safe from being called on again and feel free to do their own thing.”

The talk then turned to students who are called on and are hesitant or do not reply.  One teacher shared:

“I let students know up front that, if they want some help on a question, I’ll draw another stick. That second student can then help the first, and the first student has to repeat what the second student said (assuming the second student gave the correct answer).  That way no one gets to opt out.”

Equity Cards: Stealing an Idea From Mr. Parish

In our middle school, four major subject area teachers formed teams that shared the same group of students. One day in my planning period, I walked by 25 of “my” students in Mr. Parish’s history class. I noticed they were paying much better attention to Mr. Parish in a social studies Q&A session than they ever did in a language arts Q&A with me.

Each was sitting up, making eye contact, and listening intently. Mr. Parish stood in front of the class, holding a set of index cards in his hands. I watched as he (1) asked a review question, (2) gave students several seconds to think, and (3) drew a card from the stack in his hand and read off  a student’s name. That student responded, Mr. Parish turned the card over and made a brief note on the back, placed the card back in the stack, and repeated the procedure.

What did he write on the back of the card?  I have no idea.  But what an effective way to distribute turns!

My next Q&A session, I copied Mr. Parish’s technique, and students were much more engaged.  I‘ve used a mix of these “equity cards” and ask-wait-randomly designate to distribute turns ever.

Here’s how to distribute turns fairly with equity cards:  

  1. Write each student’s name at the top of an index card. Make sure all cards are face-up and right-side-up.  If you teach multiple classes, use a different color card for each class or securing them with different colored rubber bands.
  2. Explain to students…
    1. You value hearing each person’s ideas and answers, and so sometimes you will use a set of cards to make sure everyone has a fair turn.
    2. When you use the cards,
      1. Everyone will hear the question
      2. Everyone will have at least 3 seconds to think
      3. You will shuffle the cards, randomly draw one, and call the name on it
      4. After they answer, that card goes back in the set to be called again
  3. Use symbols to keep a record on each student’s card of their participation.
    1. Use plus, check, and minus to indicate the level of the response.
    2. Use a different color pen or pencil each time to keep track of how many times each student has responded
  4. After marking a card, silently and secretly turn that card upside down in the stack. Now when you shuffle and come to an upside-down card, you know that student has already been called on.
  5. Call on at least one student twice to reinforce the belief that any student at any time could be called on. After you call on a student for the second time, turn that card face-down in the set.

A second-grade teacher shared the following story in a workshop follow-up session:

“I used a school bus die cut to make equity cards to distribute turns.  I wrote each student’s name on the front of a ‘bus’ and then laminated them.  I told my students that sometimes we were going to use the school bus cards to see who would get a turn to answer.  I showed the students the set of cards and that each of their names was on a ‘bus.’  By the second week of using them, if I forgot to pick them up whenever we started a review, the students were reminding me to ‘use the bus cards!’”

May you experience success in all your academic endeavors!

– Alene

Written by

Alene Harris, PhD, is a retired professor from Peabody College of Vanderbilt University who for 50 years was a certified teacher in both elementary and secondary (English Language Arts and Life Sciences) levels. Her background includes 16 years of classroom teaching and 23 years of university teaching, including over 2,000 mostly middle school students, with a smattering of elementary and high school, in urban, suburban, and independent schools; and over 1,000 college students, mostly graduate students returning for a master’s plus teaching licensure, at Peabody College. She is the author of Reclaim Your Challenging Classroom: Relationship-Based Behavior Management.

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