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Where Do I Begin? Using Think-Pair-Share to Initiate the Problem Solving Process

This page authored by KimMarie McGoldrick, University of Richmond.
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This material was originally created for Starting Point: Teaching Economics
and is replicated here as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service.


Interjected as a break in the lecture, this think-pair-share exercise requires students to identify all the information provided in a complex word problem and explain why each piece is either important or not relevant for the problem.

  • This exercise is designed for a principles of microeconomics course, but the process outlined is applicable for any class in which students struggle to interpret and solve complex word problems.

Learning Goals

Content Objectives:
Identifying factors that impact supply and those that impact demand.
Distinguishing between a change in demand (supply) and quantity demanded (supplied).
Identifying the impact of changes in an input market on the final good market.
Predicting changes in equilibrium price and quantity.

Learning Objective: Identifying steps in the problem-solving process by
Identifying economic components in a word problem.
Describing the meaning of each component.
Explaining why each component is relevant or irrelevant for solving the problem.
Identifying the steps used to solve a word problem.

Hansen's Proficiency: Display command of existing knowledge; in other words, explain key economic concepts and describe how they can be used.

Context for Use

Knowledge required: This exercise is intended to be administered after a standard chapter on the market (covering supply, demand and equilibrium) is covered by the instructor.

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

Time required: The exercise is designed to take a total of 10-12 minutes.

Teaching Materials

Sample problem:

The U.S. government administers a number of programs that impact the dairy industry. A very large media campaign is undertaken to make the public aware of the health benefits of drinking milk at all ages which includes campaigns such as Got Milk?, Milk Does a Body Good, and the Milk Mustache. At the same time, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides subsidies to dairy farmers, linked to how much milk a farmer produces. Finally, USDA purchases about 75 million pounds of cheese annually and distributes the cheese as part of its food program to the elderly. In addition to these government programs, the recent economic downturn has motivated people to cut back on some food purchases, limiting their spending to more basic items and cutting out many snack foods and desserts such as ice cream. How do each of these events independently impact the cheese market? What is the cumulative impact of these events on the cheese market? Can you definitively predict the overall impact on equilibrium price and quantity? Explain.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Class size poses no constraints on utilizing this exercise as it only requires that instructors facilitate the pairing of students after the initial independent work is completed.

The 10 minute exercise is comprised of the following think-pair-share components: 4 minutes for students to work independently to solve the problem, 3-4 minutes to share and revise answers, and 3-4 minutes for reporting back to the larger class.
During the think stage of the exercise, students practice recognizing economic information and evaluating its relevance for the problem at hand. Requiring students to independently identify and evaluate information in this stage ensures individual accountability.

Student pairs are the mechanism by which positive interdependence is facilitated. In this exercise, since two students are working together building consensus in their evaluation of the information provided in the problem, it supports positive interdependence through output goal interdependence.

During the sharing, stage of the exercise students methodically take turns identifying information included in the problem and stating the degree to which it is relevant as their partner reflects and asks questions of clarification through face-to-face (promotive) interaction. This also supports positive interdependence by explicitly generating role interdependence.

During the thinking and sharing stages of the exercise, it is imperative that the instructor move throughout the classroom to check in on 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 one key piece of information from the problem. Thereafter, students toss the ball to another pair to share another piece of information. This process continues until all information (relevant and irrelevant) has been identified and evaluated.

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:
A key aspect in this exercise is ensuring that the problem provided is rich enough to allow each student in the pair to identify at least three pieces of information and assess their relevance. Typical problems have six or more pieces of information.


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 think-pair-share exercise has no formal summative assessment directly tied to it. However, it is set up in a manner that mimics question content and structure which appears on quizzes and exams covering this material.

References and Resources