INTRODUCTION: Each fall semester I teach a Freshmen Seminar course designated for students who have been accepted to the university on a probationary basis.  These students have warning signs of uneven success indicators in high school coupled with ACT scores below our college’s average.  This group is a challenge to teach.  Establishing consistency in attendance and completion of course expectations is the first challenge.  The habits they have previously established work against the habits needed for responsibility.  Along with this problem, the students do not realize their responsibility to be an active participant in their learning and future (many believe they have little say in what happens to them; they don’t own their past failures, they believe they are victims of circumstance).  Since they feel the world is acting upon them, the students usually have difficulty in seeing themselves objectively, and are unaware of their own thinking processes.  Others demonstrate a lack of self-confidence (and now the university has singled them out as “at-risk”). 

The Freshmen Seminar course deals with the usual study skills and transition issues, but the students often needed smaller steps to establish the new habits.  Since getting off to a good start in college was especially important for this group, I began by seeking a low-threatening way they could practice establishing a habit.  I wanted to provide an opportunity where the chance for success was high and the price for failure was low.  At the same time, I wanted my students to begin to feel better about themselves, to see themselves as capable students whose dreams and goals were valued.  I wanted them to believe in themselves and see that I believed in them as well.

In a novel I read two or three years ago, the main character spoke about a time he rushed to a class.  A requirement for entering this particular classroom was to write a thought for the day, expected even though he was late.  The teacher’s later written response to the “thought” gave this character a new perspective on what he had written. I considered this a powerful tool to influence a student’s thinking; a thoughtful response to one of their thoughts. I also envisioned the implications concerning responsibility from a simple requirement of one thought.  (I wish I could tell you what the book was, but though I have tried, I have not been able to go back and locate the passage.  If anyone can recognize it, I would appreciate identifying it.) [Donna Smith of The University of Findlay replies, “The thought card story came from Chicken Soup for the College Soul, Jack Canfield, ed.,1999, “The Thought Card,” by Hanoch McCarty, page 80.”]

From this idea, I developed the “Thought Card” strategy.  This simple daily card would be the opportunity for the student to learn to develop a habit, thereby developing self-discipline.  Through its requirement, I hoped it would demonstrate the student’s responsibility to fulfill an expectation to be an active thinker.  I was sure, if I did my part correctly, this card could open communication with students, offer encouragement and advice, and reflect and challenge their thinking.


  • To provide a low-threatening opportunity for students to establish a habit
  • To help students be cognizant of their responsibility as an active participant in the learning process
  • To promote dynamic thinking on the part of the student
  • To provide a means of communication between professor and student where opportunities for reflection and affirmations encourage students to become attentive to their thinking patterns  


  • For the Professor: One 3 x 5 index card per student on the first day of class plus a few extra ones
  • Student requirement: package of index cards for the semester


1. In your syllabus, require a “Thought Card.” In my syllabus under the list of course requirements, I say, “Thought Card—Your ‘ticket’ to each class is a 3×5 card with your name, the date, and your thought for the day.”  Do not specify what that thought should or might look like.  The first one is due at the second class meeting. Distribute an index card to each of them for this first time and remind them it is their responsibility to purchase their own cards.  You may wish to allow freedom to express themselves in the type of card: lined or unlined, white or colored.

2. At the second class meeting, ask for the cards.  Inform them that after this point, you will not ask for the “Thought Cards” but expect them on your desk by the time class begins.  At this point you may wish to distribute a card to anyone who has not yet purchased his own, with the reminder that this is also the last time that you will provide this service.  If a student shows up to class and forgets to hand in a card, s/he is marked absent for that day according to your absence policy.

3. After class, read each “Thought Card,” and write a short personal response on the card.  Your response depends on what the student writes.  With the open directions given them, their thoughts can go anywhere: comments on class discussions; questions about college and life; or ones written to see if they can “stump the professor.”  Other times, students might share information about their lives or their feelings or share a meaningful quote.  Sometimes you may want your response to be a question to get them to think deeper about what they wrote or to inspire them to see their thoughts from a different perspective.  Sometimes you might use a question to get them to think how they might answer the question they posed.  Sometimes an appropriate response is a direction to a person or source that might give them insight or help.  Don’t hesitate to respond often with an affirmation about them or an achievement that was shared in their thought.  (See examples of “Thoughts” and responses below.)

4. During the following class, hand back the cards without verbal comment and proceed with whatever you have planned. No discussion of the “Thought Cards” is necessary.


I began this activity with a Freshmen Seminar Course as a non-threatening way to establish a habit and responsibility, and as a means of dialogue between the student and myself.  Because of the results, I also incorporated the cards into a traditional course.  I have now used this activity for two years with a Freshmen Seminar course and an Interdisciplinary Writing course.  The results have gone beyond my expectations.  Here are some of the benefits:

Positive Habit Formation. My students quickly establish the habit of a daily “Thought Card.”  There are always one or two who falter during the first week or two, scrambling at the last minute, but they eventually fall into the routine. The structure, peer support, and peer reminders make it an easy habit to establish, creating a successful first step to college-level responsibility.  This activity then becomes a good discussion point for the ingredients that are needed to establish positive habits.

Responsibility for Participation. The students learn quickly that they have a daily responsibility to have and express a thought, to be in class, and to communicate with the teacher.  According to one student, “This really opened my mind.  As impossible as it seems, I sometimes found it hard to think of a random idea to write down.  It forces me to get my mind thinking about every possible topic.”

Dynamic Thinking.  The students themselves realize an obligation to be part of the process.  As each semester progressed, students’ Thought Cards often began to address class material or discussions.  In the Freshmen Seminar class, thoughts might include questions about the transition to college.  In the Writing course, the cards might have afterthoughts about readings and discussions from the class.  The students began to think about or question course issues.  For one student: “I feel that this exercise is beneficial in that it displays our individual expression.”

Affirmation & Reflection.  In evaluations, students often express that my comments showed that I take an interest in them. “Thank you for being interested in us.” Some journals included: “This really opened my mind,” and “Learning about yourself can be easy or it can be a difficult challenge.  For myself, I find it to be quite complex, cause …my ideas always change.”

In addition to my original goals for this activity, I saw other benefits. 

*Encouragement of shy students.  I have always hated “requiring” student participation.  Some students are more reflective and others are timid. Participation can be seen as threatening for these students.  Students who are passive often resent the requirement and offer participation that is not meaningful.  But with the cards, all students have a non-threatening platform to express thoughts and questions.  It is not uncommon to have students write that they would not have expressed their thought in class, but were glad to have the opportunity to do so on the card.  My response accepts their comments and encourages them to share their excellent thoughts with the entire group. At times it does coax some of these students to do just that.

*Faculty appreciation. Other faculty at my university expressed their appreciation of the “ticket” analogy – just like a ticket to a concert, there are implications here that the student has an investment in the event. The investment in the class is sharing part of themselves. This analogy can be extended to the choice of where you sit and what you want from your investment.

*Problem identification. Thought Cards sometimes reveal students’ personal problems.  One of my students was battling depression and another had difficulty dealing with the issue of a family member’s passing.  In both cases I was able to direct them to the help they needed.

*Record of attendance. The cards also became an easy way to take attendance, learn student names, and discover a little about who they are.

*Positive Strokes.  A side benefit of this activity was the occasional note that offers thanks for something from our course or for something that I did.  We all need positive strokes from time to time.  In remembering how these comments encourage me, I hope I will continue to give positive strokes to the students so they can forge ahead, too.

I do not claim this activity will do all of these things for all students.  In fact, there will be some students who have difficulty in having a thought beyond the condition of the weather.  But the response process allows you to question, nudge, and direct them to THINK.  I truly believe that is what we are all really trying to do with our students – get them to really think; logically, connectively, seeking implications, evaluations and conclusions – think critically.

Alternative procedure: If you wanted more directed results in the thinking process, you might  become more specific about the types of thought to be written on the card, for instance, “write a thought about the last class lecture.”  However, I believe that the openness of this assignment has fed the belief of acceptance of all student thought. 


One of the life lessons I gained from this activity is a reminder that if we, as educators, want students to step up to responsibility, then we need to provide the expectations, tools, and guidance for them to do so.  We would not think of throwing a child into the water and telling him or her to learn to swim.  Yet, as educators, we often expect students to be responsible for themselves without giving them a specific explanation of what that means or the chance to practice it in smaller strokes.  Before that child swims laps, he swims short distances.  Expectation of a small, consistent task offers the student a chance to successfully practice commitment and responsibility and to step up to the greater and more important responsibilities in class.

But the biggest life lesson for me is staying mindful of how complicated and complex our students and their lives really are. The “Thought Cards” offer an insight into each student that I cannot get in a classroom.  There is a chance to see a different side of each of them, especially the ones who tend to be shy and quiet.  It is easy to forget that they have lives that can make college, or the course, more complicated than I see from behind my desk. This complexity is seen in the questions and thoughts that go through their minds as they adjust to college life and expectations, while at the same time, they try to figure out who they are and where they are going.  It is a reminder to address their hearts and souls as well as their minds.

Sample Thoughts and Responses from “Thought Cards”

  • Student thought: How can I get to downtown?
  • Teacher response: Check at Tower desk for transportation information.
  • I think it’s considered wrong to be in an altered state because it offers a sneak preview of how your body might feel in heaven.
  • Are altered states always heavenly?
  • I wasn’t sure what you were expecting for this paper.
  • So what will you do the next time you are unsure of my expectations?  How will you resolve this problem?
  • Sometimes staying up all night cramming doesn’t work.  And you know it’s your own fault. 
  • Good observation; now what are you going to do differently?
  • Why don’t snow plows do their job when they are supposed to?
  • Who is determining the “When” in this question?
  • God’s greatest creation is a healthy person.
  • What about a crippled person-are they less of a creation? Which people then are not as great of a creation?
  • Why do you think we remember some things from our past but not others?
  • Maybe a better question is why do we forget some things?
  • Why does it always seem like the people you hate the most, like you the most?
  • Why do you hate people who like you?
  • We should have to take more speech courses because we can’t become good speakers in just one speech course.
  • So how can you improve your speaking without another speech course?
  • I got an “A” on my math test!
  • Congratulations on a job well done! Your hard work is showing.

 After 9/11, there were a number of thoughts like the following:

  • Do you think that the U.S. government should retaliate against the terrorists?  Do you think this will spark World War III?
  • I think we will see what needs to be done and pray for wisdom for all.

–Chris Zielinski, Director, Academic Resource Center, University of St. Francis, IL

Forum Image OptionThought Cards Forum