Kennesaw State University

Eliciting and Using Student Thinking

Author: Kadian M. Callahan

This article shares ideas for how to elicit and use student thinking to foster learning in university classrooms.  Suggestions are made for making instructional changes that enhance both shorter-term and longer-term learning opportunities.

With an increased emphasis on actively engaging students in the learning process (e.g., Bonwell & Eison, 1991; Meyers & Jones, 1993) and a shift toward learning-centered instructional strategies (e.g., Doyle, 2011; Weimer, 2013), the ways that faculty foster student learning needs reconsideration.  According to Meyers and Jones (1993), active learning may take any of the following forms:

         Talking – articulating your ideas so others can make sense of them

         Listening – listening carefully to others’ ideas so you can understand their thinking

         Writing – expressing your thinking in written form

         Reading – reading carefully to be sure you understand what you are seeing

         Reflecting – thinking about your ideas, comparing them to others’ ideas, making sense of the mathematical ideas for yourself

Research studies identify many advantages of using learner-centered pedagogical practices that actively engage undergraduates in the learning process through talking, listening, writing, reading, and reflecting irrespective of the content area.  Engaging students in these opportunities can stimulate higher-order thinking and promote knowledge retention, (e.g., Biggs & MacLean, 1969; Bonwell 1996; Bransford et. al, 2000; Meyers & Jones, 1993; Smart, Witt, & Scott, 2012), encourage students to become responsible for their own and their peers’ learning (e.g., Astin, 1999; Ebert-May & Brewer, 1997; Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1991; Pucha & Utschig, 2012), and influence their level of commitment to complete undergraduate study (Braxton, Milem, and Sullivan, 2000). 


One aspect of consideration for actively engaging students in learning is the way in which faculty elicit and use student thinking to foster meaningful learning.  In particular, learning-centered teaching strategies create opportunities for faculty to gather information through formative assessments that can be used to further support students’ learning (e.g., Blumberg, 2009; Driscoll and Moyer, 2001; Mansson, 2013). Incorporating students’ ideas makes the learning more personal and meaningful to the students and can have a profound impact on the ways that students engage with course content. 


Strategies for Eliciting and Using Student Thinking


Summative Assessments

There are many ways that faculty might elicit student thinking. However, once faculty have elicited students’ thinking, we need to decide what to do with those ideas and how to use it to shape the learning experience. Summative assessments such as tests, term papers, and final projects can provide useful information about student thinking that can be considered when planning changes to a course in a subsequent semester.  For example, after reviewing students’ term papers, an instructor might realize that students do not understand how to provide supporting evidence for arguments that they are making.  The faculty member could then use this information to plan for how to develop future students’ understanding of and experience with providing supporting evidence for arguments prior to submitting their term papers.  This might be addressed by integrating requirements for providing supporting evidence into assignments earlier during the semester or perhaps by providing examples and non-examples as a resource to guide students’ work.


Formative Assessments

Formative assessments such as quizzes, exam wrappers, discussions, think-pair shares, and short papers can be used to make instructional changes in a current or subsequent class meeting during the same semester.  Some formative assessments produce artifacts that can be examined after a class meeting (e.g., responses to in-class writing assignments, quizzes, or online discussion prompts).  Faculty can examine these artifacts for evidence of student learning and use the information they gather in subsequent course meetings and assignments.   For example, when reviewing a minute paper, did many students misinterpret the central point of class discussion?  When given a conceptual problem, did several students fail to apply principles that were covered earlier in the class?


A more challenging, but also more impactful way of using student thinking occurs during class meetings.  In this context, faculty gather information about student thinking during class activities or discussions and make decisions about how to incorporate those ideas into the current lesson.  While this may seem intimidating, faculty may find this approach changes the way that students engage in and take responsibility for their learning because they begin to see that their ideas are valued and serve as an important component of the learning experience.  To do this well, faculty will find it helpful to:

  1. Be intentional in the design of activities and tasks to ensure that the activity/task will encourage students to be thoughtful about the content and that will encourage them to share their thinking about that content
  2. Anticipate how students will respond to tasks/activities, and plan for how to incorporate those responses into the lesson to meet the learning goals
  3. Ask good questions (and at that right time) to generate the types of thinking and discussion that are central to the learning goals
  4. Listen carefully to student thinking and make note of which ideas to bring to the forefront of whole class discussions and the order to discuss those ideas relative to the learning goals
  5. Faculty may also find it helpful to create opportunities for students to share their thinking with their peers directly (as opposed to filtering those ideas through the faculty member)

Regardless of how faculty decide to elicit and use student thinking, doing so can shift knowledge development and sense-making into the hands of the students in ways that can support active learning and organizing knowledge in more meaningful ways.


Examining Teaching and Learning in Two University Classrooms



The following activity is designed to encourage faculty to consider and examine what eliciting and using student thinking might look like in university classrooms.  As with any pedagogical strategy, this activity should not be implemented without consideration of what and how to support students’ learning the material in meaningful and authentic ways.  Some things work well in certain classrooms and not so well in other classrooms.  Consider if and how a strategy might be used effectively to meet the learning goals in your particular context.


Watch the videos (linked below) with the following questions in mind.  Then consider your own context.  How might you elicit and use your students’ thinking in your particular context?

  1. What do you notice about teaching and learning in this classroom?
  2. What is the instructor doing?  What are the students doing?
  3. What evidence is there that learning is occurring?
  4. To what extent are students’ ideas or ways of thinking incorporated into this lesson?
  5. What do you think students will take away from this lesson?


Classroom 1

                           (Teaching Stage Performance Course – Watch from beginning to 9:38)

Classroom 2

(English Language Course - watch first Watch from beginning to 9:48)


Reflecting on the Videos

Below are some thoughts about what is happening in the videos.  You may certainly notice other things than those listed here.

Classroom 1:

  • The instructor engages students in an exercise on the first day of class that begins to develop their skills as they would use them in an authentic context. 
  • The instructor provides specific formative feedback to students about what they are doing well and what they are not doing well and why it is important.
  • He often directs his feedback to the entire class and reiterates what the students should be doing and why.
  • Sometimes he turns to the students to ask for their thoughts on what the performing students are doing.
  • The instructor is enthusiastic about the course.
  • Students are paying attention to their peers.
  • The instructor is supporting students to strengthen their skills while students are practicing their skills.
  • After receiving feedback, oftentimes students are asked to try again.  They implement the instructor’s suggestions, and he comments on their efforts to do so.
  • Students should walk away with a better understanding of some of the important components of a performance.

Classroom 2:

  • The instructor begins the discussion by providing a picture that shows two people who appear to be communicating in some way, but it is not clear what they are communicating about. 
  • The instructor asks students questions about the picture to begin generating ideas about what might be happening in the picture, and then puts the students into pairs to explore three questions about the picture.
  • When students share their ideas, the instructor does not repeat what they say, but instead comments on their ideas.
  • While students are discussing the picture in pairs, the instructor listens to each group and writes a few notes from time to time.
  • The pairs report their ideas back to the class.  Students appear to be listening to each other; they take turns sharing their ideas.
  • The instructor listens to the students’ pronunciation of certain words and highlights the annunciation of those words.  She checks in with different students to make sure that they are able to pronounce the words correctly.
  • The instructor asks student about the parts of speech for different words and records their responses on the board.  She also writes annunciation notation for each word. 
  • The instructor seems to be embedding the instruction around learning to speak English into the task of figuring out what is happening in the picture.

We encourage you to share information about what you tried – both those that succeeded and those that need to be further refinement.  If you have a video to share, please do!  We can all learn from each other.

The Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) at Kennesaw State University offers a variety of teaching enhancement services including individual and group consultations, classroom observations, small-group instructional diagnoses (SGIDs), and syllabus review.  We also offer workshops on teaching and learning as well as tailored workshops to meet specific departmental needs.  Visit our website at or send an email at for more information.



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