Having students participate in small-group academic conversations is one of the simplest and most effective strategies in the modern classroom. Not only does it build students’ academic language, critical thinking, and socio-emotional skills, it also establishes a sense of community and creates a student-centered environment in which everyone’s voices are heard.
However, ensuring 100% participation and equity within small groups depends on a structured routine that students can easily follow. The QSSSA process reigns as one of the most popular routines and has been implemented pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade and beyond in any and all content areas. The steps of QSSSA are:
- Question: the teacher provides an open-ended discussion prompt
- Signal: students give a gesture to show that they are ready to respond
- Stem: the teacher provides a sentence stem or frame for students to use in their responses
- Share: the teacher says who will speak first in each group, and students share their responses
- Assess: the teacher randomly calls on one or more students in the whole-group setting or selects a member of each group to share
I have seen many teachers implement QSSSA; and universally, they see a transformation in their students’ engagement and learning. Additionally, I’ve seen teachers implement two other strategies during QSSSA that deepen discussion, build confidence, and encourage even the shyest or most struggling students to participate.
Reversing the Signal
The signal is not just an indicator for the teacher but also a kinesthetic action that engages students and activates their brains. Common signals include thumbs up, standing up, or raising a hand. Reversing the signal means asking all students to make a specific gesture (before they have thought about the question) and instructing them to undo the gesture when they are ready. For example, instead of asking students to raise their hands when they are ready to share, ask all students to raise their hands, then ask students to lower their hands when they are ready to share.
This simple change has enormous benefits. First, students who were not paying attention when the question was presented or did not hear the question are now laser-focused on trying to think about the question. Many students might raise their hand simply because everyone else is, and (especially when the question is written down) they might also think, “Why do I have my hand up? Oh, because I have to answer this question!” Second, reversing the signal removes ambiguity for the teacher about whether students are ready. When the signal is not reversed, a teacher might wonder whether a student who does not raise their hand simply forgot or needs more time. However, when the signal is reversed, students will not keep their hands raised in the air indefinitely unless they are still preparing their responses.
Cueing Students to a Resource
To engage in a structured conversation, students must have a source of background knowledge they can connect to and activate. However, if students struggle to make a connection in their minds, or if they are entirely new to a topic (because of missed school or struggles in previous years or units, or simply because they need re-teaching), they will also struggle to come up with a response to share in their groups. Thus, it helps to instruct all students to look at a resource while thinking about their responses. Such a resource might be an anchor chart, a page in the textbook or the notes, or a visual. (Providing teachers with a source of rich visuals has become my passion project through The Visual Non-Glossary). For example, consider how a teacher sets up a QSSSA with and without cueing students to a resource:
Without cueing students: “Class, raise your hands, and lower your hands when you can explain which technological innovation of the Tang Dynasty had the biggest impact.”
With cueing students: “Class, raise your hands and look at this list of technological innovations of the Tang Dynasty. Lower your hand when you can explain which technological innovation had the biggest impact.”
In the second case, students who might not have remembered (or never learned) the various technological innovations of the Tang Dynasty can still think about and participate in a discussion. At the same time, students who are already familiar with technological innovations have the opportunity to think critically by comparing all options at once. In both cases, you might notice that the teacher reversed the signal. This can be a highly effective combination: have students point to a specific resource (or area of a page on their desks), then instruct students to lower their hands when they are ready to share.
Both of these strategies are designed to level the playing field for the most marginalized students while encouraging all students (including the highest-performing students) to think more deeply about content and express themselves more clearly using academic language.