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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Tools for Teaching: The Amazing Sticky Note

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

This week, I watched a science teacher use sticky notes in a very creative way. To check for understanding, the teacher gave each student a sticky note and asked each of her science students to give concrete examples of the vocabulary that they had learned in class. As the students exited the classroom, they placed the sticky note on the door. After the students all left the classroom, the teacher collected the sticky notes and was able to tell right away which students understood the concepts and which ones needed some targeted assistance.

This not only helps the teacher, but the students also were able to confront their exact understanding of what they had learned and intuitively they understand the clear message that what they did in class today was important and they are expected to learn.

This got me thinking of all the other ways we use sticky notes to help students learn. We give students "way-to-go!" recognitions on sticky notes. I find that the more specific I am with my praise, the more power it has to reinforce the behavior. I put a note on a student's paper that complements her on her neat writing, and the next day, this student was much less withdrawn and more active in her participation. As a principal, I have seen teachers respond positively when they receive a positive sticky note about something great that I saw in a walk-through observation. Even email and texting have not replaced a well-placed sticky note for powerful communication.

In the Spanish classes I taught, I would use the small sticky notes to provide extra credit points as a reward for student participation and effort. I took a rubber stamp of a toucan that said Bravo! and created my Bravos! right on the sticky notes. If students made attempts to speak Spanish, answered correctly, did something nice, or won a game I would give them these by pealing off a sticky and placing it on their paper. The competition to obtain one was often fierce. The nice thing about this kind of extra credit is that the students are the ones that have to keep track of it. Because they are sticky, all they have to do is stick them on a test or a quiz. I put limits (only five Bravos! could be used on any quiz or test), so they couldn't save them up for the final. I also frequently had auctions of stuff that I got at workshops and conventions that they could bid on with Bravos!

Some of the ways I've seen sticky notes used in classrooms:

  • When reading difficult passages from technical texts, I have seen teachers encourage students to summarize what is being stated on a sticky note and then place the note in the margin so it sticks out a bit to make it easy to find in the future
  • Students use sticky notes to organize their folders, study cards and notepapers
  • Students storyboard their writing with sticky notes so they can be moved around. This matches the idea that not all of us think sequentially, and allows students to take advantage of ideas spawned out of order
  • Some students (particularly boys for some reason) when they get a pad of sticky notes seem to always want to draw the antics of stick men on the bottom of each one so that when they flip the pages, it appears that the stick men are moving. This actually requires planning and higher order thinking
  • Students comment on other student papers or work and give suggestions for improvement and compliments on sticky notes
  • Students sticky notes to identify things in the classroom, label items in a target language, or categorize items by type
  • Gallery walks in which students analyze poetry, quotes or philosophies by placing their responses on sticky notes
  • Teachers use colored sticky notes as disciplinary measures, green notes being exemplary behavior, and red ones warning of impending discipline if behavior doesn't change
  • Here's a recent Edutopia video that shows how one middle school teacher uses sticky notes to help her assess her students.

Who would have thought that simply putting a bit of semi-sticky glue on the back of a small piece of paper could be so powerful for student learning? How do you use sticky notes in your classroom?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Comments (16)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Tom Steenhuysen's picture
Tom Steenhuysen
Parent of 4 bright children.

I saw this experiment with sticky notes recently, and thought it may be a nice addition to the list.
Of course, maybe the school supply list should first add "20-pack of sticky-notes" :)

RSolomon's picture
Director of Curriculum at Hochberg Preparatory Academy

I recently presented at a state educational conference on low-tech tools that yield high student engagement. I included sticky notes as one of the tools (along with a deck of cards and a small stuffed dog). Among the ways that sticky notes can be used is for students to write their names on one and then place it on a continuum, indicating where they stand on the issue being discussed. The entire class can then see trends along the continuum, and students have to defend their placement.

Another idea is to post dramatic or colorful photos around the classroom and students write a descriptive word about each photo on a note and stick it on. As they circulate, they see their peers' thoughts and might begin to view the images differently. (One rule - the same word cannot be used twice, forcing them to think of vivid details.) It's a great strategy for planning descriptive writing.

The 3M site has more ideas for classroom uses!

Trinity Tracy's picture
Trinity Tracy
Middle School English and Debate Teacher

I think this is a great idea, but my first thought is that it's a little pricey. Perhaps you can use magnets and scrap paper?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal

Critical Skills teachers use sticky notes as coaching tools when kids are working collaboratively. They allow us to interject just the right question ( such as: What are you supposed to be working on? What would happen if you said that idea again? Why is your group so committed to creating a poster? Does the challenge require you to use only the book as a resource? Who hasn't been talking? Are you sure all ideas are being heard? etc.) without interrupting the flow of conversation in the group. When a teacher steps in, we find that kids lose their collective train of thought- not to mention a lot of momentum. By sliding the note in and walking away, we can guide from alongside instead of stomping all over their process. We also use them a lot to help organize ideas generated in a brainstorm or in response to a focused-thinking discussion prompt- think affinity grouping, but with a lot more flexibility as well as the ways described here.

Greg's picture

I cerntaily appreciated the notion of using sticky notes as an exit slip for students to show their level of understanding as they leave a class. I am a bit concerned with the other examples provide being about a) giving praise as opposed to feedback, and b) giving extra credit points for participation and behaviour. These are not defensible education practices.

Cyndi Scheib's picture
Cyndi Scheib
Art teacher - High School from western suburbs of Chicago.

I agree about the pricey side of sticky notes- so why not add them to the list of school items students will be leaving in the classroom like they do with their boxes of tissues. One of the middle school teams I have worked with even specify what colors they want based on curriculum. The sticky notes are then gathered and the team has a variety to choose from. One year there was such an overabundance of sticky notes, I was able to do a masterwork mural recreation with the sticky notes instead of paint or pencils.

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