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By Howard Iver Thorsheim, Ph.D., St. Olaf College

Howard Iver Thorsheim is Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota, USA. In these blogs he offers his first-person insights into effective teaching techniques gleaned from a combination of scholarly research and over 40 years in the classroom.

The Challenge:

The challenge was how to promote cooperative thinking of team members doing psychophysiology, drawing from their richly diverse interests and ideas, and in the process to learn a “soft” skill that could transfer to later life.

The Solution:

I adapted a tried-and-true group process to help team members doing psychophysiology research identify diverse ideas and think about their group project in a cooperative way. (The technique can be scaled up to engage many teams simultaneously). The technique is called the Nominal Group Technique, first developed by DelBecq and Van de Ven (1975).* The reason for the word nominal is evident in Step 1.

Step 1. Each student in a team was given a stack of 25 or so Post-it® notes. Because each student is working alone at this point, they are a group in name only (i.e., nominally a group). Their homework assignment was to think independently about ideas and interests that came to mind for them, and jot down a few words identifying their idea or interest on each of the Post-it notes. Interaction comes in step 2.

Step 2. The next class, the team members gathered together near a whiteboard. In a round-robin interactive fashion, one at a time, the students placed their Post-it notes on the board: One person started by placing the top Post-it from their stack on the board; the second person placing their first Post-it note close or further away from the first person’s Post-it note, depending upon their sense of closeness of the ideas. So it goes with the other students, with the round robin continuing until all Post-it notes are placed on the wall. Step 3 is the convergence!

Step 3. Again in a round-robin fashion, students take turns with a non-permanent marker drawing dashed lines around clusters they observe, and jotting down their idea for a name for each cluster. The result from the large group of individual ideas or interests becomes a smaller cluster of related ideas. The result is more coherence of ideas, engagement, social cohesion, and team focus. It works every time in any team or group!

See how the Center for Disease Control adapts the technique in this Nominal Group Technique (NGT) Evaluation Brief.

*Delbecq, A. L., Van de Ven, A. H., & Gustafson, D. H. (1975). Group techniques for program planners: a guide to nominal group and Delphi processes. Glenville, Illinois: Scott Foresman.

Learn more about BIOPAC’s education solutions, including complete teaching systems for psychophysiology and the life sciences. BIOPAC also provides a wide range of research systems for recording, displaying, classifying, and analyzing psychophysiological measurements.

BIOPAC Systems, Inc. provides life science researchers and educators with data acquisition and analysis systems that inspire people and enable greater discovery about life. Visit us at

Professor Thorsheim is a licensed Psychologist, educator, and author. He has published or presented over 125 papers, journal articles, books, book chapters or monographs, and received a patent in 1985 as a co-inventor for an educational book design with interactive elements. His work has been funded by marquee foundations across the globe. His most recent work is Doing Psychophysiology: Getting Started, available from Knowledge Growers, Inc., available as an iBook download in 51 countries.

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