Student Engagement

How to Adapt Visible Thinking Routines to Maximize Student Engagement

These adapted classroom strategies encourage students to talk through and reflect on learning in meaningful ways.

February 20, 2024
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Visible thinking routines—strategies and frameworks that help students verbalize and demonstrate their thought processes—benefit students and teachers alike, especially when integrated regularly into classroom routines. In fact, using such routines can preserve students’ cognitive resources, which are finite, according to research, because they don’t need to retain steps and directions for a new activity in order to engage with learning content. 

And there is a plethora of resources available regarding visible thinking routines, meaning that teachers of all ages and subjects can utilize the strategy. Some of my favorite resource repositories are Thinking Pathways, Inspiring Inquiry, and Harvard University’s Thinking Routines Toolbox. For educators who may be new to the visible thinking routines, I recommend think-pair-share.

I’ve found that many existing routines can be enhanced and adapted. To that end, I share below several visible thinking routines that I have altered and benefited from in my work with students.


The Step Inside visible thinking routine can expand students’ perspectives. In my English language and literature course, I have used this strategy to help my students take on the role of a character from our novel study. I adapted the activity by integrating technology and creating a Padlet that I shared with all students. I then edited three questions that encouraged students to step inside a character’s perspective—in our case, the perspective of Peter Wiggin from the novel Ender’s Game: What do I care about most? Do I love Ender? Why am I acting violently? Students justified their perspectives by providing citations from the text.

To enhance this routine, you can ask students to respond to another student’s writing by acting in the role of another character, a historical figure, or a scientist, as applicable. On Padlet, I like to use the comment feature for this enhancement. My students used the comments to respond from the perspectives of Colonel Hyrum Graff, another important character in the novel.


Connect, Extend, Challenge—a thinking routine that asks students to consider how new learning has broadened their thinking—is well-suited for teachers to implement when students learn new concepts or ideas that connect to previously taught content. 

I revamped this routine to offer my grade-seven students an opportunity to collaborate. After students individually completed their “Connect, Extend, Challenge,” I printed their written responses. Each student then cut out their connections, extensions, and challenges, and I grouped students into pairs or trios, where they pasted their work onto poster board.

They then identified similarities between their and their group mates’ responses by drawing lines between ideas. Students explained their identified similarities on their lines, which provided evidence of students’ thinking. 

Some groups even created their own labeling system. I found that keeping such an option open to students promoted a sense of ownership between the groups. Due to the smaller group setting, my more introverted students were especially engaged by this enhancement to the thinking routine.


Headlines summarize and capture new learning in a catchy way. Students can create an interesting title for an online article, newspaper, magazine, or blog that summarizes new learning. I have found that headlines are an excellent springboard for student collaboration and interdisciplinary learning or for an interactive planning meeting between teachers. Educators can show colleagues exemplar headlines from content completed in their classes, and these headlines can kindle discussions on common topics or content being taught across subject groups. 

For example, a math teacher might bring a headline from one of her students that reads, “Discovering Ratios: The Power of Comparisons.” A music teacher might share, “Catchy Tunes that Make Music MUSIC.” From the headlines above, the math and music teachers can discuss how ratios and melodies relate.

Students can also exchange original headlines and write a 500-word response that fits their peer’s headline. And they might make further enhancements with AI—if your students are of age and meet your country’s requirements. Students can prompt AI to generate alternatives to their own headlines, and they can compare human versus AI-generated headlines to analyze the similarities, differences, and efficacies. 

You can try a subject-based approach to prompting AI—for example, “Hi ChatGPT, we have read/learned _____ in _____ (subject). Our teacher asked us to generate a headline to show our understanding of _____. Here is my headline: _____. Could you generate another headline for me?”


The visible thinking routine 3, 2, 1 Bridge was adapted by Alice Vigors, creator of Thinking Pathways. Vigors’s adaptation, 3, 2, 1 Reflection, gives educators a quick method for reflecting with their students. In my practice, I have found that reflection can become worksheet-heavy. But an adapted 3, 2, 1 Reflection gives me a tool for diversifying engagement. 

Begin by printing the 3, 2, 1 reflection image on large paper, preferably in color. Post it on the bulletin board. After completing an activity (or a visible thinking routine), give each student a Post-it note. Ask students to write three things that they have learned from the activity on this note. 

Then, hand out another Post-it. Ask students to write two questions that surfaced from the activity. Give them one more note on which to pen a challenge that stemmed from the activity. Next, invite students to walk to the poster and attach their notes to the corresponding locations. This makes for excellent bulletin board material, and it gives students an opportunity to move during lessons.


We educate because it is our calling. Every cohort of students is different; this is one of the many reasons why educating is an art and science. At the time of my writing this, there are 83 different visible thinking routines from which educators can select to best serve their students and educational contexts. This array preserves teachers’ professional autonomy, and each of these routines can be adapted or enhanced—as demonstrated above—to further suit learners’ needs.

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