I made my FYS class do an affinity wall. No one cried. Not even me. In fact, it was an incredibly successful exercise.
I had always been somewhat amazed at the affinity wall that my team created in grad school while working with a local toy store in project management class. The insights we gained were nothing that any of us could have come to on our own, even though the information we had in front of us was the exact same information on hundreds of little post-its. Our final recommendations were based entirely off the insights we gained from our affinity wall. Yeah, it was a lot of work, but it was completely worth it.
When I came across a very similar exercise in Gamestorming by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo, I knew I would be doing an affinity wall early on in my FYS class. We are working with the idea of resilience in class. In order to create a group understanding of what resilience is and then build future assignments off that understanding, I first had to establish what the class knew about resilience. Enter: Affinity Wall.
I handed out small stacks of post-its and asked the class to spend 5 minutes brainstorming everything they could think about resilience – words, images, ideas. Each word, image, or idea got a new post-it, and each student needed to have at least 5 and could have many more. All the post-its were put on the whiteboard and then the fun began. I asked the students to rearrange the notes to put things together that seemed to belong together. There doesn’t need to be a defined reason, just a feeling. Soon large collections of things will start to develop. Once a majority of the post-its had found a group, I walked around with a marker and started loosely defining the groups that I saw developing. Notes that didn’t seem to belong anywhere got put in a “parking lot” and the others needed to find or make a group. When all of the notes had found a spot, we created a label for each of the groups. I would read aloud some of what was inside the circles and the students would shoot ideas back at me for what to call it. Sometimes there was complete agreement and sometimes we used a couple of words. In the end, we had a much deeper understanding of what resilience is and what it looks like. I now have a touchstone on which I can base any number of other assignments and reflections. We will be using it all semester.
There are, of course, any number of different brainstorming techniques and approaches. I like the affinity wall because it requires input and participation from every member of the class. I love a technique that requires the students to do most of the hard work of thinking and participating while I act as a guide. Every student has literally touched the project, and I hope that this means they have more buy-in to the end result. We’ll see as the semester goes on. In the mean time, you can see a transcribed copy of our affinity wall here.