Everything that Could Go Wrong with the Appointment Clock Strategy

And Why You Should Do It Anyway

Another strategy that I presented at the recent conference was appointment clock buddies.  I really like this strategy and I think it can work for almost any subject and a lot of grade levels.  If you do it right.  There are also a lot of potential pitfalls, and I’d like to share those so that you can think through how to approach the appointment clock and feel good about it before you use it (now would be the time to grab a beverage).

What is the appointment clock strategy?

This is a strategy that I learned from Gale Elkins and that other people have posted about here and here.  Appointment clock is basically a glorified pair-share or turn-and-talk, where students have 4 (or 6 or 12) different partners picked out before you begin the activities.  You can then do the same kind of mini-discussions or mini-lectures with activities that you would do with pair-share, but instead of just having one partner, students have many and are moving around the room. So you say something like “Meet with your 12 o’clock appointment and make a list of words the author uses to describe the main character.”  Or whatever short tasks make sense for your class.  If the tasks are quite simple, you can tell students when to progress directly to their next appointment and their next task.  If you prefer, you can have all students return to their original seats for a debrief discussion or another mini-lecture (or video clip, or whatever) before getting a new task to do with their next appointment.

They get these partners by filling out a sheet that looks like this:

Appointment Clock Example

Students fill out their sheets ahead of time and the partners have to have each other on the same line (in the example above, Alex’s 12 o’clock should be Sam).  This does take some time to set up, but once the students have partners, you can dive into the day’s activities without interruptions.

What are the advantages of the appointment clock strategy?

A big advantage is movement.  Students get up and move several times, which helps with engagement.  I also like the structure it adds to small, disconnected tasks.  Maybe I want to make sure students paid attention to the shift in setting in last night’s reading.  And I want them to use the strategy of replacing pronouns with their antecedents as they read.  And I want to give them a chance to make predictions about the upcoming reading.  Those are pretty different topics, but they’re still all seatwork. And they might all be important to where we are in the text, but they can still seem a bit all over the place and not hang together as a lesson.  I find that the appointment clock strategy adds structure and movement so that it doesn’t seem as boring or messy to handle all of those in one day.  Of course, in an ideal lesson, each of the activities would build on each other, but when is teaching ideal?

The other main advantage I see in the appointment clock strategy is the social learning.  We know that students learn better when they talk out their ideas, but whole class discussions tend to get dominated by a few voices.  Appointment clocks give everyone a chance to share their ideas.  Plus students work with a variety of partners, which gives them a chance to hear other voices.  And like any pair-share, students are usually more willing to volunteer in a whole class discussion if they’ve had time to talk through ideas with a partner ahead of time.

So what could go wrong with your appointment clock strategy?

If you’ve never done appointment clock, but you’re intrigued, kudos for being open to trying something new!  Let’s talk about some of the pitfalls I’ve encountered over the years so your first attempt goes smoothly.

Problems with the clock itself

The clock can be confusing.  First of all, the clock can have up to 12 slots, but it doesn’t have to, so you’ll want to choose how many partners you want students to have.  I teach in 90 minute blocks, and I rarely get through more than 4 activities (with debriefing discussions), so I only use 4 appointments.  Some teachers like to keep the appointment clock for at least a semester, so they might want to set up 6-12 appointments, but then only use a couple of them on any given day.  Sounds nice, but if every kid chose 12 appointments in September and your November lesson plan involves meeting with 4 o’clock appointments, someone is bound to be absent, leaving someone without a partner.  And the chance that every kid has their appointment clock sheet from 2 months ago is, uh, non-existent.  If you still like the idea of always having 12 different partners ready to go and you don’t mind storing the appointment clocks yourself or posting them in the room, that’s fine.  It’s just worth thinking through ahead of time.

So after you’ve decided how many partners you want your students to have and how long you’re going to keep the appointments for and where you’re going to store the clocks, you still have the issue of the clocks themselves.  You could print copies (like these: Appointment Clock 4, Appointment Clock 6Appointment Clock 12).  Theoretically, you could have students draw their own clocks, but that can cause an amazing amount of confusion for an object they stare at all day.  I’d at least plan on drawing a sample on the board.

To be perfectly honest, although I use this strategy a lot, I’ve given up calling them clocks with the students or using the graphic.  Something about sentences like “in 5 minutes, we’re going to meet with our 10 o’clock appointments” when it’s actually 1:30 in the afternoon needlessly confuses at least a couple of kids.  Although my lesson plans say appointment clock, I just tell the kids to number 1-4 on a blank sheet of paper and then choose 4 partners.  Then they have the rest of the sheet to write their notes from the various activities.  And the next time I want to use the strategy, we start over again with new partners, so I don’t have to worry about absentees and lost clocks.  It’s maybe not as cute, but it is efficient.

Problems with choosing partners

Of course, any time you have students pick their own partners, there can be issues.  Some students choose partners they don’t work well with.  Others feel left out or anxious about the whole process.  

I actually find that the appointment clock strategy works better than simply telling students to get up and find a partner.  Because students have to find multiple partners, they are less likely to begin pairing off and leaving some kids out.  And because of the movement and structure of multiple partners, I find that most students stay more on task than they might if they were working with their friends for the whole day.

Which isn’t to say that choosing partners always goes smoothly.  If you have an odd number, there has to be a group of 3 for each appointment you set up, and it’s difficult for the students to know when they’re making appointments if anyone else is the group of 3.  And there’s often that one kid who walks in late or spaces out or whatever and doesn’t get partners when everyone else does.

If those things are going to bother you, you can point out ahead of time the need for a group of three and circulate while kids are choosing partners to try to make it go more smoothly.  It also helps to double-check by having everyone point to each of their partners one at a time to make sure no one accidentally double-booked before you start the actual activities.

I might be weird, but I actually like the chaos of letting partner choosing run its course without any intervention and then asking them how can we figure out if it worked and everyone has the right number of partners (be prepared for wacky answers like “we could all get up and hug our #1 partner”).  It can take at least 5 more minutes beyond choosing partners, but it is real world problem solving and a chance for leaders to step up.


Honestly, the most daunting part of the appointment clock strategy is setting it up.  But if you’re worried about lack of accountability or control over what students are doing with their partners, you could collect their notes or use a debrief after every partnering to reinforce the best ideas you heard while they were working.  In fact, that can be another great way to get more voices involved–If Dylan and Sasha don’t usually volunteer, but you overheard them saying something interesting, asking them to share with the big group is less threatening than cold-calling on people.

Next time

Once you get used to the set-up, appointment clock buddies is pretty simple and very flexible.  It can be used to accomplish anything you can do with partners.  You can set it up for one day, or over the course of a unit (4 partners for 4 different peer editing tasks could be cool, or 12 partners over the course of a novel study).  If you can figure out where to store the clocks, it can solve your partner needs for a whole semester. There are endless variations, and you could use it not only to get through content, but also to start a discussion about collaboration and working together.  Or just to get you unstuck about what to do next time.

4 thoughts on “Everything that Could Go Wrong with the Appointment Clock Strategy

  1. laura Windom

    I started using appointment clocks after hearing the idea in a workshop this summer. I was the student who dreaded partner-picking time in class. I would have loved this as a student. While the appointment clock was an instant hit with my AP kids, I had to ditch the clocks in my regular junior and senior course within a month because students were continuously being added and dropped from my class, as is the current norm for my system during the month of August. YUCK! Just never revisited the tool.

    Thank you so much for sharing!

    1. Karena Nelson

      Thanks so much for reading, Laura! So much of teaching is easier on paper and then a hot mess when you go to actually do it. Good luck with it!

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