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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put a note on a student's paper that complements her on her neat writing, and the next day, this student was much less withdrawn and more active in her participation.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
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