INTRODUCTION: I have found that almost every student problem – whether academic or personal – can be addressed by seeking answers to three questions: (1) What do you want? (2) What’s standing in your way? and (3) What are you going to do about it?  Obviously, this is an approach that is ideal for one-to-one conferences. However, I have also found that when other people are invited to brainstorm possible solutions to a problem, the list of options is much longer and richer in possibilities. Thus, the Idea Exchange is very adaptable and works well in a variety of group sizes. I’ve used it in a small group, in a classroom, and even in a presentation to a large group.  As a bonus, the activity can be done in only 20-30 minutes.

By way of example, suppose a student is having difficulties in a course and asks the instructor for suggestions. The instructor will certainly have some good options; however, an Idea Exchange where the entire class offers ideas may provide additional choices that are even more helpful to the student (and to classmates who are also struggling). As a collateral benefit, the activity empowers students with a process for tackling other problems as well.

PURPOSE: To help students…

  • Generate ideas to solve a problem
  • Understand the power of interdependence
  • Make new connections among their peers


  • Black or White board (flip chart or overhead transparency)
  • Each student needs a few sheets of paper and a pen or pencil


1. I recommend that you begin with a personal example to model the three steps of the Idea Exchange. On the board, write something you want, along with the obstacle standing in your way. Then ask the group to offer suggestions for overcoming the obstacle, writing each one for all to see (about 2-3 minutes).  Next, spend a few minutes commenting on the ideas that you find personally useful. Finally, share with the group any of the ideas you plan to implement over the next week or two. Now it’s the students’ turn.

2. Ask students to write their name at the top of a sheet of paper, and then write what they want under their name. Say, “Think of a goal or dream you REALLY want, something that isn’t easy to get – big or small, short-term or long-term.”   (NOTE: Encourage students to state the desire as specifically as possible.  Some examples: I want to sleep at least 7 hours each night. I want to start a walking club. I want to pass math.)

3. Next, ask them to write the obstacle standing in the way of achieving their goal/dream. (NOTE: Make sure the problem is identified as specifically as possible.  Some examples: It’s hard to find time to sleep because I’m taking classes, working, studying, AND raising a family!  I don’t know anyone who might be interested in being a part of a walking club. I don’t have time to exercise. I’m no good in math and I’m not motivated.)

4.  Say, “Now find a partner whom you have NOT met before, someone you don’t know. Take a minute to introduce yourselves, but don’t talk about what’s on your paper yet. While introducing yourselves, decide which of you will be Person A and who will be Person B.”

5. After everyone has a partner, announce, “When I say to begin, Person A, tell your partner what you want and what’s standing in your way. Then Person B, you’ll have one minute to provide as many solutions as possible, with Person A writing them down. When I say switch roles, Person B, state what you want and what’s getting in your way. Person A, you’ll have one minute to provide your partner with as many solutions as possible.  Spend the time SOLELY on coming up with ideas, not evaluating each idea – that can come at a later time. If time runs out and you need more information from your partner, get a phone number or e-mail address to contact them later.”

6. “After each person has a turn, I’ll call out ‘Get another partner.’ Once you have a second partner, repeat the activity, with each of you having one minute to state what you want, what’s standing in your way, and record options offered by your partner.  We will continue this exchange of partners for three rounds.”  NOTE: If the conversations seem to be going particularly well, you can extend the time…but probably no more than two minutes at a time. 

7. After the rounds, lead a discussion of the process with questions such as, “What solutions did you come up with that you’ll implement?” “What did you think of this process?” “What did you learn from this experience?” 

8. In the final step of this exercise, have each participant write one or two actions they plan to take within a week. Additionally, have each participant identify one person with whom they will share their goal/dream and ask to hold them accountable to get the work completed.


I’ve used this activity in a variety of settings and I notice a common experience.  During the first exchange, most students spend a significant part of the time explaining their goals/dreams and the problem, leaving little time to brainstorm ideas.  From the second exchange on, they usually become more clear regarding their goals/dreams and problems so that more time can be spent on the brainstorming activity.

If you have a large number of students (more than 30), I suggest that you have some type of device (microphone, buzzer, chime) that can be used to signal transitions in the activity.  For example, I’ve done this presentation with groups as large as 300 people and have used a loud bike horn to end the conversations.

Here are a few comments from students about their experience with the Idea Exchange:

“I was looking for ideas on deciding on a major. I was surprised that two of the people I partnered with went through the same thing and shared lots of great ideas for me to implement immediately!”

 “This process made my dream not only believable but achievable!”

 “At first, it’s hard to share with another person you don’t know; but after doing it the first time, it gets really easy!”

“When we first did the activity, I thought it wouldn’t be much fun.  However, as we continued to go from partner to partner, I was able to meet new people and actually have fun!”


I have been impressed with the options that students come up with during the Idea Exchange. For example, one group with which I have used this activity is students on probation. Many of them said they were not interested in their major; thus, a common goal in these groups has been to find a more appealing major. Examples of options that students came up with to achieve this goal include: Go to career services and talk with a counselor about career options, meet with an advisor to talk about their interests and compatible majors, set up a meeting with someone who’s doing a job that they might love, and talk to a professor/staff member who has similar interests. I have found that most students will try most, if not all, of these options and end up pursuing a major that is more aligned with their interests.

Other students have used the Idea Exchange to identify options for learning new study habits, improving time management, or finding potential internship/job opportunities.  Sometimes their goals are of a non-academic nature: learning to sky-dive, traveling to all fifty states within five years, or spending a summer in Europe on $500 or less.

Since many people are more motivated to complete a task when they will be sharing their results with another person, one of the most important steps in this process is having students find a person who will hold them accountable for completing the tasks. For example, I was the accountability partner for one student whose goal/dream was to pass his accounting class.  Even though he failed his first two exams, we still had a belief that he could pass his final.  Some of the actions he implemented included meet with the professor to discuss options, budget specific time each day to study accounting, find a study partner/group to help learn/understand the materials. He met with the professor who stated that he would allow the student to count his last exam as 100% of his grade.  The student set aside his doubts, set up a study schedule, and found a group to help him with the material.  After the semester, I received a small gift and a card. “Thank you for believing in me. I got a ‘B’ on the final and in the course!  I couldn’t have done it without you!”

When students achieve their goal or dream, I often usually get a call or an e-mail thanking me for helping them begin that process.  Some examples of what the activity put in motion include:

  • Planning a trip across the country after graduation.
  • Getting an internship with a minor league baseball team.
  • Connecting with a professor to be a mentor.
  • Getting a movie role in a documentary.
  • Creating a Fellowship for Christian Athletes group on campus.
  • Pursuing an English major because it’s more aligned with the student’s love for reading and writing.


I have found that when students share their goal/dream with others, especially those who have no stake in their success or failure, they are more likely to share something big.  Then, when they break the steps for achievement into manageable steps, their goals/dreams becomes more manageable.  And last, by sharing their plan with someone who will hold them accountable, they are more likely to complete the tasks and move closer to a goal or dream that is important to them.

Every now and then, if time permits, I have one participant share his or her goal/dream with the group; it’s almost magical how many new ideas come from the whole group. The Idea Exchange also allows the students to use me as a resource – which allows me to fulfill my purpose of being a guide and a connector for every life that I touch!

–Bill Johnson, Student Success Coordinator, School of Health and Human Performance, University of North Carolina-Greensboro , NC

Forum Image OptionIdea Exchange Forum