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Teaching Strategies

On the Air 2020 employs a variety of teaching strategies designed to engage students in meaningful scientific work that promotes higher level thinking and communication skills. Sometimes these strategies are described directly in the activity directions. At other times, teachers are tasked with using generic “discussion strategies” or “questioning strategies” from their own repertoires. Below is a sample of teaching strategies that are recommended for use with On the Air 2020.

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Discussion Strategies

Science circle (aka Socratic Seminar)

Have students arrange their chairs into a circle facing one another to hold a group discussion, for example, to discuss and debate the meaning of the results from an experiment. Encourage students to talk to their peers (as opposed to the teacher) and to engage in meaningful debate and dialogue with one another. The teacher’s role is to moderate the discussion, and sometimes to ask questions to the group to provoke further discussion. A variation on the science circle is the fishbowl discussion, where one group of students sits on the outside of the discussion circle and listens or observes the discussion circle. Then groups then switch roles partway through the discussion.

Think, pair, share/Turn & Talk

Give students a question or prompt to consider, and then have them turn to a partner to discuss. This partner talk allows all students to participate in the discussion, as opposed to a whole group discussion where many students listen but do not actively contribute. Think, pair, share and turn & talk discussions are often held before a whole group discussion in order to help students clarify their thoughts and hear a different point of view. These types of conversations especially support students with learning disabilities who may be reluctant to participate actively in whole group discussions.


Student-led discussion

Have students engage in a standard whole-group discussion, but have a student lead the discussion instead of the teacher. The student can use common question prompts (ex. “How did you reach that conclusion?”, “What evidence do you have to support your claim?” or “Who agrees with what <x> said?”). Alternatively, have the student ask a set of specific questions developed by the student or the teacher in advance. Student-led discussions help promote leadership skills and allow students to learn better questioning techniques of their own. They tend to work best after students have participated in – and analyzed– several discussions led by the teacher.


Silent discussion

Give students a prompt to respond to on paper (ex. Do you think that air pollution is getting better or worse over time?). After they have written a short response, have students pass their papers to someone else in the class. The second student responds to the first students’ statement as if they were having a discussion. Papers can then get passed back to the first student, or on to a third student to add to the conversation. After several back-and-forth statements, papers are returned to the original writer to read the full discussion. This discussion technique helps to support students’ writing skills, and benefits those students who need additional time to develop their thoughts or who prefer a quieter classroom.

Hand signals

Students use hand signals during a whole-group discussion to indicate to each other and the teacher when they agree with, disagree with, want to link to, want to build on what another student has said, or for other purposes. This technique helps to build equitable classrooms, and works well in a virtual context.

Accountable talk stems

Students use verbal discussion sentence starters to lead safe and respectful conversations with one other. Stems such as, “I agree with…”, “I disagree with…”, “Can you explain what you mean?” promote meaningful conversations where students feel comfortable sharing without fear of being insulted or intimidated by others. Sentence stems such as, “I heard you say…” and “I like how you…” encourage students to listen to, and paraphrase one other, so conversations build as opposed to jump around.

Discussion Strategies

Questioning Strategies

Effective questioning strategies guide student sensemaking without taking away the heavy cognitive lifting that students must do for higher-level thinking and real learning. Here are some tips for asking strong questions:

  • Ask questions that focus students’ attention and require them to think. For example, “How does the graph of temperature relate to the graph of carbon dioxide emissions?”

  • Ask open-ended questions that allow students to discuss and debate. For example, “Do these data support or refute your original hypothesis? How?”

  • Avoid either/or questions that simplify the thinking too much for students. For example, “Does the graph go up or down?” followed by “Does that mean pollution is getting worse or getting better?”

  • Ask questions that require students to back up their answers. For example, “What evidence from your research supports that claim?”


Asking good questions only gets you half way to your goal. Here are some tips for what to do after you’ve asked your questions:

  • Provide adequate wait time after asking questions. Students need time to process questions and think of answers. Do not misinterpret silence as students being “lost.” Using turn-and-talks or stop-and-jots (see discussion and sensemaking strategies above) after asking a question are good ways to provide additional processing time.

  • Avoid answering your own questions when students don’t immediately respond. Just as with providing adequate wait time, students need time to process, and if they learn that you will answer for them, they will stop thinking for themselves.

  • Use equity sticks or other “cold-calling” techniques to ensure that you don’t find yourself always calling on the same students to answer questions.

  • Don’t give up on a student if they get stuck or don’t get an answer “right.” You may let them call on a friend or classmate for support, but remember to return to them to see if they have corrected the previous misconception. This not only shows your confidence in their ability to learn, but it also holds them accountable for staying engaged and fixing any errors.

Questioning Strategies

Sensemaking Strategies

Stop & jot

Students pause to write down thoughts from an activity, observation, or conversation before moving on. Stop and jots can precede a conversation to prepare for talking, or follow a conversation to summarize the discussion.



Use any of the discussion techniques described above that promote sensemaking.

Graphic organizers

Venn diagrams, cause and effect charts, flowcharts, and other graphical representations can support sensemaking by providing a structure to students’ thinking.


Concept mapping

Have students make their own graphic organizers to show how different concepts are related. These maps can be messy, and often benefit from a few drafts. Concept mapping is often less about the final product and more about the thinking process that goes into creating it.


Modeling a scientific concept, process, or phenomenon can involve making a graphic organizer or other written description that helps to explain the phenomenon. However, models can also be physical objects, drawings, or even kinesthetic movements that help to clarify or

Analogies and examples

Have students create analogies to help explain a scientific concept. For example, the way transpiration in plants works is similar to sucking water up a straw. You can also have students think of additional examples that exemplify a particular scientific principle. For example, students who are learning about how solids dissolve in liquids might think about sugar in a glass of iced tea, salt in a pot of boiling water, or marshmallows dissolving into a cup of hot cocoa.

Sensemaking Strategies
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