Making learning happen: the power of the post-it note

Hazel Christie

post it note
For Phil Race, the humble post-it note is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal when teaching. It’s small and portable, everyone can use it, and the technology never lets us down. Indeed he jokes that it’s an equal opportunities device. But why is it so helpful? Used creatively, Phil suggests, the post-it note allows us to make lectures more participative and fun, and gives us a quick and easy way to gauge what knowledge the students bring with them. It also allows us to ask questions of the students to find out how much knowledge or understanding they have of a topic that we can then give immediate feedback on. Used well, the post-it note helps to make learning happen, and that’s what a good lecture should be about.

I had the pleasure of seeing Phil use the post-it note creatively in a session on ‘Smarter Lectures’ that he led at the University last month. Before we knew what was happening, he had distributed one post-it note to everyone in the room, and asked us to note down our answer to the question ‘lecturing would be so much better if only I could …’. In one fell swoop the spotlight was on us – the students – to highlight what we wanted to get out of the session. Our notes were duly collected and displayed on the wall. Although there were over 40 people in the room, the post-it notes gave Phil a quick and immediate grasp of what we saw as the common problems, as well as of the areas that we wanted to learn more about. Throughout the session he returned repeatedly to the comments we’d made, basing his contribution entirely around our starting points and tailoring it to the things we’d expressed an interest in.

This seemingly easy interactive exercise performed three functions which Phil sees as essential to learning, and which can be replicated in many teaching situations. First, it takes us away from the idea that the lecture should be all about the teacher. Rather, it puts our emphasis on the learners, and what their needs are. Phil is clear that when we are lecturing we should have the confidence to relax and keep quiet so that we can focus on finding out more about what the students already know and what their needs are, and his post-it note exercise was a simple way to do that. Secondly, it moves us on from our traditional worries and concerns about the delivery of the content to make us think about how students learn by doing. So instead of agonising about how much information to pack in to a 50 minute slot we would be better advised to think about activities to engage our learners in with the aim of deepening their understanding of the topic in hand. Here, answering a question made us pause to think about the issues we actively wanted his input on. While we didn’t become co-creators of knowledge, we did have the opportunity to direct the content of the learning to better support our needs. And thirdly, doing practical stuff in lectures creates conditions where students can be given quick and easy feedback about their progress with their learning. For Phil, feedback is only useful if it comes after students have done something and if it is given quickly. In our case, he used our post-it note comments to give immediate feedback on some of our shared concerns. Interestingly, he suggested that a key part of this feedback process lies in creating conditions where it’s ok for students to fail. It might sound counter-intuitive, but this is a good thing because a lecture ought to be a safe space where students can make mistakes and get instant feedback on them.

Too often in traditional lectures, students switch off and become passive. Using the simple post-it note Phil showed us how easy it can be to switch them on again in order to make learning happen.

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