Plus-Minus: A Quick Reflection that Transforms Student Talk

by Nancy Motley


Most of the students I have taught did not arrive to my classroom with a well-developed skill set for engaging in academic conversations. I encountered a wide variety of challenges whenever I asked my students to talk to each other in class. They got off task immediately, one person took over the entire conversation, or no one wanted to talk.  

Because of these challenges and others, I found myself sometimes limiting collaboration given that less interactive activities are typically easier to manage. Alternatively, when I did let students talk to each other, I repeatedly ran up against the same roadblocks. I was often so focused on the content of what students were saying that I was not really thinking about their communication skills. Most of my feedback was about what they were learning and rarely about how they were collaborating. The only time they got feedback on the latter was when collaboration was not working and I began to lose patience. 

It usually sounded something like this: “Everyone stop. I can’t believe how loud it is in here. It is supposed to be voice level two, and you are all yelling at each other. And look, seven of you are out of your seats, and Wyatt, why is your phone out? You guys, I am so frustrated. I thought you’d like the chance to talk to each other before you write your paragraph, but I can see we aren’t able to do that. Everyone sit down, and begin your assignment silently.” 

Here’s the rub: my frustration was unfair. I was irritated that they weren’t doing what I wanted (collaborating effectively), but I had never taught them how to do it. I had only told them to do it.

This was where Plus/Minus Reflection came in. The idea is to give students one plus (a positive reflection) and also one minus (something upon which to improve for next time) after each opportunity to collaborate. It only takes about thirty seconds of time to tell students the plus and the minus of each collaboration. For example: “Guys, I noticed that most of you were making good eye contact with the person speaking in your group. Good job. I also want us to work on not interrupting each other next time we talk.” I then record this information in a journal, which takes an additional thirty seconds. 

When we give students singular and specific feedback about their attempts at collaboration immediately after they talk, we are prompting their own reflection. Don’t stop there, though! The second part of the Plus/Minus Reflection is to remind students of that feedback right before their next opportunity to collaborate. It might sound like this: “I’m going to have you explain your answer to your table. Please keep doing a great job at making eye contact, and this time, let’s all focus on not interrupting each other.” When we give the same singular and specific feedback right before they collaborate the next time, we advance their communication skills through immediate practice.  

How to Implement Plus/Minus Reflection

  1. When you give students an opportunity to talk in partnerships or small groups, actively monitor their conversations and behavior.
  2. At the close of the collaboration time, tell the whole class one positive observation you made about their conversations (the “plus”), and share one observation that you would like to see them improve upon next time (the “minus”).
  3. Record your comments with the date, topic, and class period (if necessary) in a three-column journal.
  4. The next time you give that class an opportunity to collaborate, open the journal and review the plus and the minus from the last time. Encourage each group or partnership to focus on improving the “minus.”
  5. At the close of the collaboration time, repeat steps two and three.

*It is important to limit the feedback to one plus and one minus, not many of each.

**Keep your journal notes separate for each class.

Variations to Plus/Minus Reflection

  • Rather than keeping a journal, you can display Plus/Minus as an ongoing anchor chart that the class can see, which provides a visual reminder.
  • Once this becomes a habit, let students give the plus and minus feedback for their own group or for the class as a whole.
  • Small groups can keep their own Plus/Minus journals.
  • Use the Plus/Minus reflection for other areas besides collaboration (eg., entering the room, center rotations, expectations for completing assignments, use of technology, etc.) 

Keeping this Plus/Minus reflection journal dramatically influenced my students’ abilities to communicate effectively. We implemented this routine of “bookending” conversations with quick reflections as a continual habit during class time. The effect of this habit was that students not only talked about what they were learning, but they also talked about the collaboration. If something began to go wrong during talk times, they became skilled at independently fixing it. They could problem solve because they were taught how to do it in manageable chunks, one plus and one minus at a time.



Nancy Motley is the author of Talk, Read, Talk, Write: A Practical Routine for Learning in All Content Areas.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s