INTRODUCTION: As an instructor of English composition (mostly developmental), I have struggled to find ways to get students to engage themselves actively in their learning activities. Like many instructors, I get tired of seeing my students looking out the window, sending text messages, or doing some other equally non-productive activity during my class sessions. To diminish these behaviors, I have incorporated many active-learning strategies into my classroom, but I continue to see many non-engaged behaviors that suggest to me that students are still not actively engaging in the planned activities. I still often see students who refuse to speak or contribute in any way during small-group discussions, students who write one or two sentences and close their journals when I have asked them to write non-stop for five minutes, and students who are doing homework for some other subject during my class.

Because I know my students will be much more successful if they actively engage themselves in their learning experiences, I am constantly on the lookout for activities that will better facilitate active student engagement. In the activity I describe here, students work in pairs to solve a series of problems. Students have specific roles—problem solver and listener—that they alternate with each problem. The problem solver “thinks aloud,” verbalizing the steps he or she takes to solve the problem. The listener listens carefully, following the steps taken by the problem solver, attempting to understand the reasoning behind the steps, and offering suggestions if necessary.

Although I used the activity with grammar rules, it could easily be adapted to suit the needs of any instructor in any discipline. Approximate time needed: 30-45 minutes.


  • To have students actively engage in the learning process
  • To have students learn to identify relevant information and apply it in the solution of a problem
  • To have students learn and practice problem-solving strategies
  • A set of problems to solve (I used problems from the grammar workbook I use in my class)
  • Plenty of writing instruments for writing on the board (dry erase markers for whiteboards, chalk for blackboards, etc.)


1. Ask students to form pairs.

2. Explain to students the roles of problem solver and listener. Say, “The role of the problem solver is to read the problem aloud and talk through the reasoning process in attempting to solve the problem. The role of the listener is to encourage the problem solver to think aloud, describing the steps to solve the problem. The listener may also ask clarification questions and offer suggestions, but should refrain from actually solving the problem.” (Note: It would be helpful here to have these roles written on the board, overhead or handout).  It helps to model the process so students can see what it looks like.

3. Ask students to solve a set of problems, alternating roles with each new problem.

4. Select pairs at random to choose their most challenging problem to write on the board and explain to the class.

5. Ask students to share any insights they had about learning to solve problems.


Before I started the think-aloud activity I introduced the general grammar rule that subjects must agree with their verbs, and asked them to turn to the appropriate page in their workbooks. I reviewed Point of View by writing typical first-, second-, and third-person pronouns and nouns on the board. Then I randomly called on students to answer one question at a time from their workbooks. Next, I asked the students to pair up, and then I gave them the instructions for Think-Aloud Problem Solving. After checking to make sure everyone understood the instructions, I gave them a page of problems to solve in which they would need to apply the grammar rules listed at the top of the handout. I asked for a volunteer to “pop up” and read the three specific subject-verb agreement rules at the top of the page. Then I read the directions, and I used the example as an opportunity to model the “thinking out loud” I wanted them to do with their partners.

The students set to work, and I noticed that nearly all of them were having trouble verbalizing their thinking processes. They wanted to think silently until they could say the answer. I asked the “listeners” to encourage the “problem solvers” to speak what they were thinking. The “listeners” had trouble, too. I had to remind them of their roles. As I moved around the room, I repeatedly found students thinking silently before they would speak. I reminded them that they were to verbalize their thinking—to “show” their partners how they arrived at their answers. I encouraged the “listeners” to ask their partners to think out loud when they weren’t speaking. I also found many “listeners” jumping in to solve a problem when their partners were having trouble. Over and over I modeled for the “listeners” how to ask for clarification or expansion instead of just telling their partners what they were missing.   It took quite a bit of encouragement from the “listeners” (and from me) before all students were doing their thinking out loud, and it took quite a bit of reminding from me before all of the “listeners” stopped solving problems for their partners.

After all of the pairs had solved all of the problems on the second page of the handout, I chose three pairs at random and asked them to choose the problem that challenged them the most and write it on the board. I told them they both had to come to the board and that one would write, and one would explain to the class. I reminded the remainder of the class that they were all “listeners” now, so they could encourage the “problem solver” to think aloud, they could ask for clarification or expansion, and they could offer suggestions, but they had to refrain from solving the problem.

Each of the three pairs wrote their sentence on the board and demonstrated “think-aloud” problem solving. Two of the pairs arrived at incorrect answers, and many students noticed. I reminded them that they were limited to asking for clarification or expansion and offering suggestions, which they did until the pair with the wrong answer recognized where their thinking had gone wrong.

After all three pairs had finished and returned to their seats, I repeated the process with a second handout with different specific subject-verb agreement rules and appropriate problems to be solved.


I definitely achieved my first purpose, which was to have students actively engage in the learning activity. No students found a way to avoid participating in this activity. Furthermore, as the activity progressed, even my most reticent students appeared to actually enjoy the challenge of sticking to their roles. Near the end of the activity, I even heard students reminding “listeners” in other pairs not to solve the problem for their partners!

I also achieved my second purpose, which was to have students learn to identify relevant information (in this case, subject-verb agreement rules) and apply it to particular instances. The first thing I noticed as the students went to work is that nearly all of the “problem-solvers” tried first to simply answer each question. When they couldn’t do that, they were stumped and fell silent. It appeared to me that this was a habitual behavior for them—it was as if they were accustomed to giving up if they did not immediately know the answer. At first, I had to suggest to the “listeners” that they might ask their partners to read the rule that applied, but soon they were quickly doing that whenever their partners appeared stumped. By the end of the activity, though, all of the “problem solvers” were reading the problem aloud, then reading the rule aloud as the first two steps in their thinking.

Finally, I believe I achieved my third purpose, but not as well as I might have liked. I wanted to have students learn and practice problem-solving strategies, which they did. They learned and practiced at least one problem-solving strategy, which was to look at the rule and apply it to a particular sentence. Had I spent more time considering a debriefing activity, I think students would have been able to learn more than just the one I really focused on.


One thing I learned from this experience is that my developmental students often “fall silent” when they do not immediately know the answer to a question. I was amazed to discover that many of my students did not, on their own, make any further attempt to solve the problem. That tells me that they have never learned that they need to develop some strategies for solving the problems that confront them. Although these students struggled the most through the activity, they were the ones who appeared to enjoy it the most by the end of the class session.

Another thing I learned from this experience is that I need to include a debriefing activity to help students understand what to do with what they’ve learned and how to adapt it to other situations. I did not do that this time, but I will definitely include it in the future.

One big “Aha” came from seeing that, in spite of many weeks of this sort of learning activity (without the think-aloud part), my students had not learned to take the rule I was introducing and apply it to the problems that followed. This was quite a discovery for me, as the entire grammar piece of my class is structured in the following way: 1) Introduce a grammar rule; 2) Apply the grammar rule in increasingly difficult situations; 3) Write paragraphs explaining what error involving the rule is made, where it occurs, how to correct it, and what the corrected sentence will look like; and finally, 4) Write an essay about the grammar errors found in a fictitious student’s essay. I realized that if I were to introduce this activity very early in the semester, my students would have a much easier time with the essay assignments, and they would be very likely to do better in the class.

Perhaps my greatest “Aha,” though, came from the fact that it was not very difficult to adapt this activity to suit my purposes. I had actually seen a conference presentation on this activity several years ago, but it involved students’ thinking their way through difficult math problems. The presenters had videotaped their students “thinking aloud,” and they focused their presentation around their discovery that students were getting tripped up by things other than what their teachers expected. At the time, I thought it was an interesting presentation, but quickly dismissed the idea that I could possibly adapt Think-Aloud Problem Solving to suit my purposes. Now, however, I think this activity has the potential to yield for me many new nuggets of information, and I am looking forward to revising my curriculum to incorporate the activity much earlier and often throughout the semester.


The activity was adapted from “Think-Aloud Pair Problem Solving (TAPPS)” in Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty by Elizabeth F. Barkley, K. Patricia Cross, and Claire Howell Major. Published by Jossey-Bass.

–Adrienne Peek, Faculty, English, Modesto Junior College, CA

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