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Spencer’s Thinkpad

The Power of Pair Work

Three Types of Pair Structures to Elevate Student Learning

Dr. Spencer Kagan

To cite this article: Kagan, S. The Power of Pair Work. Kagan Online Magazine, Issue #64. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. www.KaganOnline.com

Cooperative Learning created an instructional revolution. Stacks of studies overwhelmingly proved that students learn better together than alone. For more than forty years, our team has been working with schools to implement Kagan Cooperative Learning, our unique approach to cooperative learning. At the heart of Kagan Cooperative Learning are Kagan Structures, easy to learn and use step-by-step instructional strategies that release the power of student-to-student interaction. In Kagan Cooperative Learning, we advocate student teams of four. One important rationale for teams of four is because teams of four break evenly into two pairs for pair work. Whether or not you choose to fully implement teams as prescribed by Kagan Cooperative Learning, you can reap many of the benefits of cooperative learning by using simple pair structures. In this article, we look at some of the benefits of pair work and the different types of pair structures you can use to boost student learning, regardless of if you use Kagan Cooperative Learning teams or not. Even if you are well versed in Kagan Cooperative Learning, with little effort, you can enhance your already successful mix of instructional strategies by adding additional pair structures to increase student engagement and liking for class and content.

The Power of Pair Work

In addition to team structures, Kagan Cooperative Learning includes pair structures. While there are many advantages to creating teams and using teamwork, pair work has some advantages over teamwork, including:    

  • Increased Active Engagement – With pair work, there is twice as much active engagement at any one moment compared to teamwork. In pairs, one in two students are active at any one moment versus one in four in teams.
  • Decreased Mind-Wandering – With pair work, there is less “down time” waiting for other teammates to take their turn.
  • Safety and Intimacy – With pair work, some students feel safer sharing with just one partner than with three teammates, and the content of the sharing is often more intimate in pairs.
  • Management – With pair work, if a student gets off task, it only impacts one other student as opposed to three. Managing a disruptive pair may be easier than a disruptive team.
  • Enhanced Variety and Stimulation – With pair work, there are many possible ways to pair up students, which creates novelty and excitement.

These reasons are spelled out in some detail in a prior article, “Pairs Versus Teams.”1 In the article I conclude not that pair work is better than teamwork or vice versa, but that teachers can get the best of both worlds by using pairs and teams.

Three Types of Pair Structures

There are three categories of structures that include pair work:

  1. Simple Pair Structures
  2. Pair Work Embedded in Team Structures
  3. Pair Work Embedded in Whole-Class Structures

In this article, first, we look at these three types of pair work, providing examples of each. In the section that follows, we show how pair work implements the ten functions of cooperative learning. The hope in writing the article is to promote a greater use of pair work. Many teachers, cooperative learning implementers or not, underestimate the power of pair work and do not implement pair work as frequently as would be optimum.

1. Simple Pair Structures

The first category of pair structures is Simple Pair Structures. These structures only involve two students working together for the duration of the structure. The teacher can have established pairs in the classroom or can put any two students together for the structure.

There are many simple pair structures that can be used drop-of-the-hat to enrich any lesson. Some teachers call them their “back-pocket structures” because they can reach into their back pocket and pull them out at any time. Simple Pair Structures have also been called “Stop Structures,” because at any moment a lecturer may stop lecturing and ask students to do a RallyRobin to review what has been said, a Pair Share to state what they think is most important, or engage in a number of other simple structures to enhance engagement and learning. Examples of simple pair structures:

RallyRobin. In RallyRobin, partners take turns quickly stating something, depending on the curriculum and learning objective. For example, to cement learning the teacher may say, “With your partner, take turns stating facts you learned from the video.” RallyRobin can be used for generating ideas like, “Take turns with your partner listing ways we could address climate change.” RallyRobin is also a great way to list examples of an idea or category such as, “RallyRobin with your partner things you would find in a desert ecosystem.”

Pair Share. To make learning relevant, the teacher may have students do a Pair Share, each describing how they will use knowledge just taught. For examples, students can be asked to Pair Share ways they will use multiplication in their life; times they will write a business letter; why knowing the Bill of Rights is important.

There are dozens of simple pair structures developed by Kagan Publishing and Professional Development. Detailed descriptions of all the structures described in this article may be found in the following books: Kagan Cooperative Learning, 59 Kagan Structures, 60 Kagan Structures, 68 Kagan Structures, and 54 Kagan Structures. Here we provide very brief thumbnail sketches of a few. Among the many simple pair structures:


Partners take turns solving problems and coaching each other. First, Partner A solves a problem while Partner B watches and listens, coaching if necessary. Then partners switch roles for the next problem.

Build What I Write

After making a construction, students write instructions for making the construction and then give the instructions to a partner who attempts to create the construction using identical materials.


Partners solve similar problems or tasks, then explain the solution to each other.

Flashcard Game

Students work in pairs through three rounds of practice to quiz and coach each other to memorize content.

Poems for Two Voices

Partners label each line of a poem A, B, or AB, rehearse, and recite their poem.


Students take turns doing something like writing, building something, or drawing.

2. Pair Work Embedded in Team Structures

As mentioned, many Kagan Structures are team structures. Students work in teams of four to complete tasks. But in many team structures, one or more of the steps of the team structure calls for pair work. Stated another way, pair work is embedded in some team structures.

Typically, we think of team structures as something we do in the classroom when we have established cooperative learning teams. We are big advocates of forming teams. Among the many reasons for teamwork are creating a sense of belonging, improving student relations, and developing social skills. Many team structures can be done periodically without reliance on established teams by putting two sets of pairs together to form a quick team of four.

My favorite example of pair work embedded in a team structure is Three-Step Interview because combining pair work and teamwork, more is learned than if students did just pair work or teamwork.

Three-Step Interview. Three-Step Interview can be done within an existing team, or by putting any two pairs together for the last step. The first two steps of Three-Step Interview are a Pair Interview in which partners interview each other. The interview is either brief or timed. For the last step, each pair pairs up with another pair to do a RoundRobin in which each student paraphrases what their partner shared in the pair interview. Teachers may encourage students to use the names of their partners as in, “My partner Laurie believes….”

I am proud to have created Three-Step Interview because, by combining teamwork and pair work, we accomplish more than could be accomplished by either alone. By adding a RoundRobin following the pair work, Three-Step Interview holds each student accountable for listening to their partner. If students know ahead of time that they will have to paraphrase their partner, they listen more intently. Thus, the structure helps students acquire an essential social skill: attentive listening.

Additional examples of pair work embedded in a team structure:


One pair on each team takes the pro side of a debate and the other pair the con side. They debate in front of another team who serves as jury.

Partner Repeat

After doing a RallyRobin or Timed Pair Share, pairs pair to form a team and do a RoundRobin in which each shares ideas they heard from their partners.


Topic 1 partners and Topic 2 partners are formed within teams. Students work with their partner to master the topic then pair with a like-topic pair to form a team of four to further master the topic and prepare presentations. Partners return to their teams. Topic 1 and Topic 2 partners present and receive feedback.


Students first solve a difficult problem as a team. They break into pairs to solve additional problems of the same type. Finally, they solve those types of problems on their own.

3. Pair Work Embedded in Whole-Class Structures

A whole-class structure is one that involves students interacting with many classmates over the course of the structure. There are many whole-class structures in which student-to-student interactions consist of two students pairing up to do something together. For example, Quiz-Quiz-Trade involves students interacting in a variety of pairs with their classmates, quizzing each other using question cards. Let’s look at some whole-class structures that include pair work:

Inside-Outside Circle. Inside-Outside Circle is one of my favorite structures because it allows so many different types of pair work. Students form two concentric circles with the inside circle facing out and the outside circle facing in, so each student faces a partner. After students interact with their partner, the teacher calls for students in one of the circles to rotate one or more partners ahead for the next pair interaction. Six popular forms of pair interaction during Inside-Outside-Circle:

  1. Pair Share
  2. Timed Pair Share
  3. Pair Interview
  4. Timed Pair Interview
  5. Quiz-Quiz with teacher-posed questions
  6. Quiz-Quiz-Trade with question cards

Among the other whole-class structures entirely or partially based on pair work:

Agree-Disagree Line-Ups

After specifying the degree to which they agree or disagree with a statement by where they stand in a line, students interact with the person next to them using Timed Pair Share or RallyRobin.


Teams generate ideas they can share with others, and then team members partner with successive classmates to give one idea to each classmate.


Students mix in the room to music. When the music stops, students pair up, sit down together, and share and record items from their lists and generate new items to add before mixing again.


Students have a Find-A-Match form with two columns of questions, Self and Classmate. After filling out the Self column on the Find-A-Match form, students partner with different classmates each time seeking one answer they have in common to add to the Classmate column.


Students find a classmate to partner with, and they quiz each other using question cards, praising correct answers and coaching incorrect answers. They then trade question cards before finding their next partners to repeat the process.

Who Am I?

Students have a secret identity on their back—a person, place, or thing. With each successive partner, they can ask three questions in attempt to guess their identity. When they guess correctly, their identity is taped on their shoulder facing forward and they become a helper.

Pair Work Implements the 10 Functions of Cooperative Learning

In Kagan Cooperative Learning, we have developed many Kagan Structures. A primary reason for so many structures is that classroom learning has many objectives. We want students to master curriculum. We want students to master procedures. We want students to learn to communicate well with others. We want students to develop social skills. Different structures are designed to reach different learning objectives. In our work in Kagan Cooperative Learning, we have identified ten classroom functions that Kagan Structures fulfill.1 For each of the ten functions, there are many structures a teacher can use. For example, Numbered Heads Together and Showdown are two different team-based structures to promote content mastery.

As we take a closer look at pair work, we find that we can accomplish the ten learning objectives using pair structures. The table below, Pair Structures Fulfill Functions, lists the ten functions, provides a sample pair structure that fulfills each function, explains how, and offers content examples.

Pair Structures Fulfill Functions

Function Type Function Sample Pair Structure Explanation Content Example
Interpersonal Classbuilding Inside-Outside Circle As students rotate, they interact with classmates in a variety of positive ways. Students rotate to do a pair share with different classmates learning their favorite after-school activities.
Teambuilding Three-Step Interview In the first two steps of Three-Step Interview, students interview their partner. Students interview teammates about their dream profession.
Social Skills Pair Share with Paraphrase Learning to paraphrase promotes good listening, which is the basis for empathy. Students share which word they believe is the most important word in the poem and why, paraphrasing their partner’s response.
Communication Skills Match Mine Students learn to check for understanding and to seek clarification. The Sender tells the Receiver how to place the farm animals just the way the Sender has placed them, receiving feedback on communication by seeing the results.
Decision-Making RallyTable Students may record lists to prioritize or place ideas in parts of a Venn Diagram indicating areas of agreement. Students place their ideas for a class charity in three areas of a Venn Diagram according to who endorses the idea: Left Side: Student 1 only; Right Side: Student 2 only; Center: Both
Academic Knowledge-building RallyRobin As students review the ideas or items presented, it cements that knowledge in semantic memory. Students do a RallyRobin stating the amendments in the Bill of Rights.
Procedure Learning RallyCoach As students practice procedures and tutor each other, they increase their procedural memory. Students coach each other on the steps of reducing fractions.

Each structure delivers a curriculum in addition to our academic curriculum. For example, when students do a Three-Step Interview, regardless of the academic content, they listen to their partners more carefully in steps 1 and 2 because they know step 3 is coming (so students know they will be held accountable for sharing what they heard from their partner). This enhanced listening fosters enhanced understanding and empathy. When students do Build What I Write, they learn to take the role of the reader as they write. Although the focus is enhancing writing skills, students are practicing taking the role of another, which fosters empathy. The different enhanced curriculum built into each structure is one rationale for using a range of structures.


Pair work offers advantages over having students work exclusively alone or exclusively teams. Among the benefits are more learning and less boredom. The process of interacting with peers in the classroom unleashes a social element to learning not present with independent work. Like with team-based learning, students verbalize their thinking to a partner, hear different ideas, receive immediate feedback, and have someone to help and coach. This all results in greater learning. As learning is more interactive, it is less boring. Students love the enhanced stimulation and engagement that springs from a classroom in which they interact with a variety of classmates and interact in a variety of ways. At a time when students are accustomed to high levels of stimulation, a classroom dominated by any one structure is experienced as boring.

There are many Pair Structures, each of which fulfills different learning objectives. Teachers who do not form and maintain teams as prescribed by Kagan Cooperative Learning can take advantage of the power of pair work without using the entire Kagan approach to cooperative learning. Pair Structures are generally quick to implement (after all, we can do a Pair Share or a RallyRobin in a few minutes) and create spice and stimulation in any classroom while allowing fulfillment of a range of learning objectives. While we encourage teachers to use the entire Kagan approach because of the full range of benefits included, pair work, with or without the use of teams, yields many of the benefits of cooperative learning.

For teachers who implement Kagan Cooperative Learning, hopefully this article encourages you to consider sprinkling in more pair structures to your daily teaching. For teachers hesitant to take on implementing all the elements of Kagan Cooperative Learning, pair structures offer an easy yet powerful onramp to the benefits of cooperative learning. There is great power in pair work!


1. Kagan, S. Pairs Versus Teams. The Necker Cube of Cooperative Learning. Kagan Online Magazine, Issue #63. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. www.KaganOnline.com

2. Kagan, S. & Kagan, M. Kagan Cooperative Learning, San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing, 2017.

3. Kagan, S., Kagan, M., & Kagan, L. 59 Kagan Structures. Proven Engagement Strategies. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing, 2017.

4. Kagan, S., Kagan, M., & Kagan, L. 60 Kagan Structures. Proven Engagement Strategies. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing, 2019.

5. Kagan, S., Kagan, M., & Kagan, L. 68 Kagan Structures. Proven Engagement Strategies. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing, 2020.

6. Kagan, S., Kagan, M., & Kagan, L. 54 Kagan Structures. Proven Engagement Strategies. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing, 2022.

7. Kagan, S. & Kagan, M. Kagan Cooperative Learning, San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing, 2017.