June 27, 2013

Get Students Thinking: The Blue Slips Approach

By: in Effective Teaching Strategies

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I have taught the senior-level marketing capstone course for more than 15 years. That translates to something like 28 semesters of graduates about to embark on life in “the real world.” We joke in academia about calling it that, but in fact when one considers the sheltered life of a college undergrad of traditional age, the world outside is more real than what they have experienced in our classrooms. I do not profess to be an expert at getting them prepared to face that scary world, but I do have an assignment that I think helps them at least think about who they will be in that new place. It involves blue slips. What’s a blue slip? Pink slips you know, but not blue ones.

A “blue slip” is a technique used by Rolf Smith, who owns a consulting firm that specializes in getting employees to think creatively. He takes people offsite and puts them through a series of “adventures,” including mountain climbing, staying up all night, and having their watches and cell phones taken away. He provides participants with small pieces of blue paper so that at any moment they can record the ideas they get for innovations. It is meant to be a freeing activity, but it is also a way to document that great ideas often come to mind in the least expected moments.

I think it would be great to take all graduating seniors on an expedition like this, but it would require a wealthy sponsor and a willing group of participants, and so isn’t a likely scenario for my students anytime in the near future. Still, I was intrigued by the blue slip idea and wondered whether I might use it to help my students think more about themselves. Here’s how my version works.

Each day as students come into class they pick up a new blue slip, a quarter of a piece of regular blue paper, and leave the previous day’s blue slip in a pile on the corner of the desk. I use the blue slip as an attendance tool and for participation points (one point per slip turned in before class starts). But its actual purpose is to get students thinking about a question they haven’t yet considered and then committing to a written answer. I try not to make the questions too personal, and I always give them the option of creating their own question should they feel uncomfortable answering mine. They can submit a facetious answer, for that matter. I have no way of knowing the “true” answer. They can decide not to turn in the blue slip. It is worth only one participation point out of a possible 350-plus.

So what kind of questions do I ask? None are marketing related. It has to be a question that requires some thought but isn’t earth shattering. The answer has to fit on a quarter-sheet of paper. It has to be something I would enjoy reading. Here are some examples:

  • What one quality is the most important in a significant other?
  • Who is your hero? And does he or she know it?
  • What five deceased people would you like to have lunch with if you could, and why?
  • What will you miss most about this university when you graduate?
  • What advice do you wish you paid more attention to when you came to college? Explain.
  • If you could change your name to something else, what would it be, and why?
  • Describe yourself in 140 characters to someone who has never met you before.
  • You’ve got 24 hours to spend BY YOURSELF, with no restrictions on money. What will you do?

I have never had a student tell me that he or she didn’t like doing the blue slips, though they may complain out of my earshot. Many have told me it becomes a ritual. When they get home they share the “question of the day” with their roommates and discuss possible answers. Every semester, at least one student remarks sadly on the last day, “No more blue slips.” A few have even asked me to send them blue slips after they’ve graduated.

I try to use 80 percent new questions each semester, which is getting tougher the longer I teach and the older I get. I have to admit to regularly reusing certain favorites, such as “Tell me five things that make you smile (and none of them can relate to alcohol),” or “When was the last time you had an honest-to-goodness-my-stomach-hurts-stop-you’re-killing-me laugh?” or “If you could drink a magic potion that would allow you to live to be 200 years old, would you drink it? Why or why not?”

As much as I enjoy reading their answers, I hope they enjoy writing them even more. I package a set for each student with a laminated personalized cover page and hand them back the day of the final. I encourage them to tuck it away with their other college gear so that when they finally have to move their stuff out of their parents’ attic, they can remember and chuckle. “Those really were the good old days of fun and games and no responsibility,” I imagine them saying. “Wish I’d never had to leave that place for the real world.”

Reprinted from Getting to Know Yourself with Blue Slips, The Teaching Professor, 26.6 (2012): 7.

Dr. Deborah Skinner is an associate professor at Butler University.

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Paul T. Corrigan | June 27, 2013

I love this activity on several levels. I think the aspect of creating a "ritual" is particularly important. But why would you not make the questions related to the content of the course? While I understand including some other aspects, I don't understand the excluding of class-related material. How does this connect with the class other than attendance-taking? Are they ever discussed? Is the habit of writing the answers discussed as a relevant skill?

Though you may have more to your practice than you've written here, based solely on what you've written here, it seems like you have an activity that has not realized its full learning potential.


Paul T. Corrigan
Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.

Tom Carlson | June 27, 2013

I require a weekly reflective journal on topics similar to these, so thanks for several new ideas!
Relating to Paul Corrigan's comment, in my case these topics ARE the course content. The course is called Learning to Learn and the point is to get them thinking about themselves as people and learners so that they are more willing and able to make changes in their lives and routines that will help them succeed first at the University, and later out in the "real world".
I do require their answers to be on topic and that their entries demonstrate depth of self-reflection (very mushy, I know); I don't require that their answers be true, since I can't prove that either way, but I believe that you can usually sense when people are trying hard to articulate their inner lives and when they're just blowing the assignment off.
The ritual idea is great – I want to use exit tickets for every class this coming semester for just this purpose, but as my students are English language learners, I need very simple topics for them. I love the idea here, as you can tell.

Donna Payne | July 25, 2013

What a wonderful idea. I have tried unsuccessfully to use variations of this idea. I believe it helps to create a learning community, boosts confidence and prevents me from wasting instructional time on attendance. I used index cards with content questions related to weekly readings. I am thinking I may use questions similar to the ones listed above, at the beginning of the semester then move on to more academic topics as the semester progresses.

I would love to know how the Dr. Skinner tracks participation points.

Kimberly Boyd | February 5, 2014

How would we use this in an ONLINE course?


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