Using Note-Taking Pairs to Enhance Understanding of Difficult Concepts (such as Income and Substitution Effects)

This page authored by KimMarie McGoldrick, University of Richmond
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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


Students use their class lecture notes in this variation of the think-pair-share technique to review the income and substitution effects associated with a price change, and reinforce their understanding of the law of demand.

  • This exercise is designed for a principles of microeconomics course; however, intermediate instructors reviewing income and substitution effects might find it equally useful.
  • When used throughout the semester, this technique is also useful for helping students better understand complex concepts and take accurate and complete notes.

Learning Goals

Content goals:
Broader learning goals:
  • Take accurate and complete notes.

Context for Use

Knowledge required: This exercise is administered directly after the instructor covers income and substitution effects in class (either during the same class period or during the following class).

Class size: This exercise was originally designed for a class of 25-30 students, but it can easily be adapted for smaller or larger classes.

Time required: The exercise is designed to take a total of 15 minutes.

Description and Teaching Materials

No additional materials are provided during this exercise. Students use their notes as a basis for the think-pair-share process.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Class size poses no constraints on utilizing this exercise as it only requires that instructors facilitate the pairing of students.

The 15-minute exercise is comprised of the following think-pair-share components: 5-10 minutes for students to share and revise their understanding based on their notes, and 5 minutes for reporting back to the larger class.
As part of the set-up for this exercise (after the lecture is complete), students are told that their presentation of the income and substitution effects should be grounded in the information they have in their notes. Thus, the thinking stage of this exercise actually occurs as students take notes during the lecture. Requiring each student to, in turn, use their notes to initiate their explanation in the sharing stage ensures individual accountability.

Since student pairs are working together towards a common understanding, it supports positive interdependence through learning goal interdependence.
In each student pair, the student to share their understanding first is chosen randomly by the instructor, such as by identifying the student whose first letter of their first name appears first in the alphabet. This lead student describes both the income and the substitution effect associated with a price increase in the case of a normal good. Their partner reflects using their own notes and asks questions of clarification through face-to-face (promotive) interaction. Students amend or enhance their notes given this reflective feedback. Roles reverse as the second student describes both the income and the substitution effect associated with a price decrease in the case of an inferior good. This sharing process also supports positive interdependence by explicitly generating role interdependence.

The key to this exercise as a process for reinforcing good note-taking skills requires holding students back from commenting on their peer's presentation until after the peer is completely done with their analysis. Thus, each student fully engages in the process of testing their comprehension, practicing their use of economic language, and evaluating the extent to which their notes are an accurate representation of material.

During the sharing stages of the exercise, it is imperative that the instructor move throughout the classroom to check in with students, monitoring progress, and intervening when necessary. Although instructors may be tempted to directly answer student questions during this period of time, student learning is enhanced to a greater degree if the instructor guides struggling students by posing reflective questions back to them.
Conclusion to exercise:
Reporting back to the larger group can be facilitated by tossing a soft ball to a random pair and asking them to share part of their answer (such as the income effect for a normal good). Thereafter, students toss the ball to another pair to share a remaining part of the exercise (the substitution effect for a normal good, and both effects for an inferior good).

Alerting students in advance that some pairs will be randomly called upon to explain their answers to the class at the close of the exercise helps to motivate students to work diligently on the task during class and - because the reporting out process occurs in this manner (via a somewhat random draw of students) - students are more engaged in the reporting out process.
Further considerations:
This technique can be used early in semester of any course to encourage effective note-taking skills. Here it is described for a topic typically covered after the first exam in a principles of microeconomics course to reinforce the importance of note-taking skills.


Since students are receiving feedback regarding their understanding during the sharing stages (in pairs and across the larger group), they are participating in formative assessment.

This particular version of the think-pair-share technique has no formal summative assessment directly tied to it.

References and Resources