Choose a Side: An ‘Unplugged’ Active Learning Strategy to Promote Analysis and Critical Thinking

Here's another 'unplugged' active learning strategy you can use in your next class!

Remember, you don't have to be a "technology guru" to use the flipped classroom model in your classroom. Sometimes, the most powerful tool is as simple as a sticky note!

Discussions about flipped classroom models have almost always included references to some type of technological tool such as computers, laptops, tablets, and phones.

Technology can be powerful, and it has almost become a requirement in today’s learning environments. It has opened the door for educators and students to connect and engage in ways we haven’t been able to before.

However, in my mission to expand the definition of the flipped classroom, I want to hit the pause button (pun intended!) for a minute. You don’t have to know how to use all these technological tools to FLIP your classroom. You don’t have to be a technology guru to effectively engage your students and involve them in the learning process.

In my work, the FLIP is when you “Focus on your Learners by Involving them in the Process.”  My 4-part FLIP framework is designed to guide you through the process of engaging students in higher-level critical thinking and analysis skills and activities DURING class time.

To do this, ask yourself, “What are students going to DO during class today?"

Consider questions such as: What can they compare or analyze in class today? What can they evaluate together in today's lesson? What can they create during class time?

The FLIP is all about your students and what they are doing in the classroom. In this blog post, I’d like to bring us back to the sacred space we share with our students in the face-to-face, in-person, real-time classroom…without technology. I call these "unplugged" strategies since they can be done without any laptops, phones, tablets, or slides. 

Here’s one ‘unplugged’ strategy you can use to involve your students in the learning process, increase engagement, and improve analysis and critical thinking skills.

Unplugged Strategy:

Choose a Side

Learning Outcome:

Students will be able to analyze a current issue using evidence.

Pre-Class Assignment:

Assign students a specific article to read which addresses one or both sides of a current issue.  For example, maybe the article is on stem cell research. You may decide to assign half the students in the class an article on one side of the issue and the other half of the students an opposing side of the issue.

Be sure to tell them they will need to make a decision in the first 2 minutes of class about whether they “agree” or “disagree” with the stance in the article. (Secret tip: This is one strategy for encouraging students to actually do the pre-class work.)

Set Up:

Before class, write a statement on the top of the whiteboard or chalkboard. Make this Statement #1. It should be something students need to be prepared to take a stance on based on the article they read.

For example, “Statement #1: Stem cell research should be legal.” Then on one wall of your classroom, post a sign that says “agree.” On another wall in your classroom, post a sign that says “disagree.”

During Class:

As students arrive to class, give them a sticky note and ask them to write their name on it. Give them one minute to read the statement on the board. And then give them another minute to make a decision about whether they agree or disagree with the statement.

When they have made their decision, ask them to put their sticky note on the wall that corresponds with their stance on the issue. Start class discussion and debate. You may call on students by referring to their sticky note. Or you may ask one student to go to the side they chose and justify their response.

Then ask that student to choose another students’ name from the wall and ask them to come up and justify their response. They can refer to the article, their experience, data, etc. to explain their decision.

Note: If you don't want to use sticky notes for this activity, that's fine. You can also use whiteboards, flip charts, or chalkboards (remember those?!). 

When you’re ready to advance students’ thinking and enhance their analysis skills, write Statement #2 on the board underneath Statement #1. Now, add a layer of complexity. For example, “Statement #2: Stem cell research should be funded by the government.”

Give students one minute to think about it and then one minute to either maintain their stance on the issue or to change their stance by moving their sticky note to the other wall.

Continue this process by adding increasingly complex statements to the board.  Example: “Statement #3: Stem cell research should be legal when abandoned embryos are used.” Or, “Statement #4: Stem cell research should be available to those who can afford it.”


It is best practice in experiential education to debrief the learning experience so students can learn both from the experience itself and from their reflection back on that experience.

When you’re ready to bring the discussion to a close, show the students how their agreement/disagreement changes as a situation becomes more complex. Discuss how their thinking evolved as the variables changed and the case unfolded. Encourage them to articulate for themselves how they should gain more insight into a situation before making a decision.

The visual representation of the agree/disagree dichotomy works well for students who are prone to making “either/or” decision making. They may notice their arguments aren’t as “black and white” anymore. They may find themselves in the middle of the classroom uncertain of which wall to place their sticky note on.

This experience is an important part of students’ development and it supports them through the process of learning how to think critically and analyze carefully.

(Note:  I realize tools such as whiteboards and sticky notes are sometimes considered “technological tools” but that’s not what I mean for the purposes of this article.)

Looking for more "unplugged" strategies?  Get the e-book!
01 Unplugged Flipped Strategies to Engage Your Students