John Suler's Teaching Clinical Psychology

The Circulating Papers Technique

circulating papersThis technique provides a fairly anonymous way for everyone in the class to give and receive feedback from other students. It comes in very handy for almost any short writing that students do - reactions to a class topic, feedback about an exam or the course, a writing related to a class exercise, etc.

I collect all the papers (including my own, for I also participate), randomly shuffle them, and then pass them back out to the class, keeping one for myself. Now everyone has someone else's paper, but they don't know whose paper it is (students are instructed not to include their names on the page). You read the paper you receive and then write on the page some useful feedback or reaction to the student who wrote it. When you finish with that paper, you stand up and exchange papers with someone else who also has finished reading and reacting to the paper he/she received. Now you and the other person have a second paper to read and write a response to. When you finish with that second paper, you stand up and find someone else who is also finished. Everyone keeps doing this - reading, writing, and exchanging papers - until everyone has read and written a response to approximately 5 to 10 papers.

I then collect all the papers, place them on a table at the front of the room, and tell the students to come up and collect their own paper. We then discuss as a class the results of the exercise.

The beauty of this technique is that everyone, including shy or nonverbal students, gives and receives feedback from several peers. It also gives the teacher a chance to see what students are thinking, how the students are reacting to each other, and to give them individual feedback.

This technique works especially well with dreams. After lecturing and discussing theories about dreams and dream interpretation, I ask students to write down on a piece of paper some dream they have had recently or in the past. Using the circulating papers technique, students get a chance to help each other explore the meaning of their dreams. I often am very impressed by how perceptive some students are at this dream work.

The circulating papers technique also works well with the Life Facts, Childhood Memories, and Imagined House exercises.

"I used the guided imagery exercise of the house today in a high school psych class. These are 'good' classes with what I thought were kind, sensitive kids. I have them journaling and their openness and sensitivity is very endearing and encouraging. However, when given the opportunity to attack with anonymity, some students used the exercise to visiously attack others for their spelling, grammar, brevity, syntax etc., telling them to "learn English", that they were obviously f-uped, or had no life. These were obviously assumptions that this exercise did not warrant. Have you ever had these problems? I tried to turn this around by discussing in class how these were acts of aggression and more of a reflection of the attackers than the attackees. I was, frankly, shocked that what seemed to be an interesting, whimsical demonstration could have turned out to be so "dark". - William Wheeler

Reply: Unfortunately, some students use any exercise involving the circulating papers technique as a opportunity to be sadistic. The anonymity involved in the technique encourages such students to regress. I usually introduce these exercises by explicitly stating that the goal is to helpful to other students, not to criticize or vent one's frustrations on someone else. In my experience, this suggestion has been sufficient in warding off cruelty. If this strategy doesn't work, there may be specific conflicts among the students that need to be resolved before these exercises can be introduced - or the students may not be quite mature enough to use these exercises. - JS

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