Adding to my teaching toolbox: the gallery walk

While I was teaching my reworked upper division gen ed class earlier this summer, I decided to use a discussion technique that I hadn't used before: the "">gallery walk. It worked so well that I'm trying to figure out where else it might be useful.

The idea behind the gallery walk is pretty simple: students are divided into several groups, and work their way around a series of stations at which they add to a list of answers to a question (or whatever the task at each station involves). I had used the technique as a participant in a session at last summer's Teaching Intro Geoscience workshop, and the way I implemented it was mostly inspired by the way it was used there.

My goals for the class had less to do with learning particular content, and more with pushing the students to think more deeply about how humans respond to natural hazards:

  • Students will be able to analyze responses to historical, recent, and future disasters in many parts of the world.
  • Students will be able to evaluate possible strategies for preventing or responding to natural disasters.
  • Students will be able to evaluate and critique the response to a potential or recent natural hazard (beyond the examples discussed in class).

I especially wanted the students to think about the issues from different perspectives, and to think about who pays the costs and who receives the benefits of various ways to deal with the hazards. In the past, I've led discussions of groups of ~30 students, trying to brainstorm lists of costs or lists of benefits, and I've had trouble getting more than a handful of students to participate. So I decided to try using a gallery walk in place of some of the discussions, and it worked well enough that I used it nearly every time.

For example, here's my (after-the-fact) class plan* for discussion of the ways people deal with floods:

Thursday: Discussion of other ways of dealing with flood hazards and of internet sources.

Discussion prep: reading in textbooks, assignment to find five ways that humans affect rivers and five things humans do to deal with flooding. [Students answered the questions on Moodle, our online course management thingy. This made it easier for me to keep track of who had done the pre-class exercise, without needing to deal with lots of scraps of paper.]

Discussion: gallery walk focusing on five of the ways people deal with flooding (flood-control dams, emergency management, flood insurance, and land-use planning). For each topic, students had to write down the benefits, the costs, and the people (or others) who received the benefits or who paid the costs. [Each topic was on a separate pad of newsprint, and each group had about five minutes at each pad to brainstorm and add their ideas to the list.]

At end, each group read their paper, and I added comments or asked students to think about another aspect. (For instance, the benefits of dams included flood control, electricity generation, and irrigation, but the people who benefited wanted different water levels in the reservoirs.)

I didn't try to grade the work - I graded based on "participation," and I simply had students write their names on the last pad of paper and gave credit to everyone who was in class. Actual participation was still somewhat uneven, but the smaller groups (five or six students in each) meant that slacking off was more difficult. I also chose the topics from the responses I had received from the discussion prep assignment, so I knew that some of the students had noticed each of the approaches in their book, and there weren't many students who had absolutely no clue what was going on.

The discussion continued after the exercise - the students didn't immediately recognize the conflicts between the different stakeholders, so I asked other questions about the responses on the pads. Participation was better than in previous classes, where there wasn't a gallery walk or other exercise before the discussion - the students defended comments they had made on the sheets, or elaborated on their thinking, or even (occasionally) argued with me when I played devil's advocate.

I haven't used the gallery walk in other classes, so I don't have a good sense of when it works and when it doesn't. I think that the discussions in The Control of Nature were suited to the technique for several reasons:

  • there were several similar questions to ask in each discussion - what various stakeholders wanted from a mitigation technique, or strengths and weaknesses of a number of approaches to solving a problem.
  • individual students were unlikely to come up with every single possible response to a question - a variety of backgrounds and experiences and values meant a variety of different responses.
  • I wanted each student to have thought about each question.

Would I use this in a science-majors class? I don't know. It would need to be in a situation in which each group of students could add something to each little discussion - each discussion would need to be complicated enough that the second, third, or fourth groups would have something left to add. It might work well for brainstorming explanations for data collected as part of a class project (especially if the data could be divided into four or five different sets). I wonder if it could be used to cycle students through several related (and nearby) sites on a field trip - to have students each make one observation, and add it to a list of observations for each site? And it might work for an upper-level class if I started discussing a topic with several puzzling observations that needed explanation. (I've never done anything like that, but it might be a good thing to try.)

So, to summarize: interesting technique, good for brainstorming, useful addition to my teaching toolbox. I'm glad I tried it.

* I swore that, just this once, I would make useful notes on what I actually did in class, what worked, and what didn't. I only managed to follow through for one week out of my five-week class - once I started grading, I stopped making time to reflect. And I will probably pay the price next time I teach the class and can't remember what I actually did...

Thanks to ScienceWoman for inspiring me to go back to this series of posts I swore I would do. She's currently working through her own course design process, and she reminded me that I hadn't finished all the posts I meant to make about my own class.

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What a great blog - not what I was expecting when I followed the link here from

I am a lifetime rockhound, so your unique (to people not in this community) blog topics are fabulous to read. I feel smarter just in the 10 mins I've been here ;)

Love your style and topics - I'll be following!

Have a fabulous day!

But what was the 5th way people deal with flooding?

I used a gallery walk in a small intro class a few years ago and I thought it was fairly successful. My class had ~15 students, and I've never figured out how to scale it up to a larger class.

*counts* Ack, I have no idea what the fifth way was. Might have been levees; might have been "do nothing until disaster strikes." (Told you I wasn't very good about making notes about what actually happened in class.)

My class only had 24 students, so I've never scaled it up to a larger class. The suggestion on SERC is to split the class up into sections (so a 100-student class might have four sections of 25 students, each of which did the gallery walk as if it were a smaller class). I don't know how well it would work, though - my experience with classes over 50 students (which thankfully is a decade ago now!) is that every single teaching technique is harder. (Even pure lecture is harder, especially if the room has mediocre acoustics.)

I like the idea of having individual students adding to a list of observations at field trip sites. In intro-majors classes, almost anything could be a valid observation, so students could feel encouraged by the exercise. It could also lead to lively discussions and brainstorming, in on-the-outcrop sessions, amongst majors farther along in their studies.