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Protocol Toolkit Item: 1e


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An interactive and collaborative activity used to create a common definition and greater understanding of a key topic or term. The protocol leads to better quality teamwork around the topic or term.


Chart paper/whiteboard or presentation slide Sticky Notes, multiple colors Pens/Markers  


Two sessions totaling 50-60 Minutes


This protocol requires two meetings with participants. The first part of the protocol will gather input from all participants and take approximately 15-20 minutes, depending on the group size. At the end of this time, the facilitator(s) will have themes from which to build a written definition. A proposed definition is developed by the facilitator(s), and at a second meeting, the definition is shared, discussed, and agreed upon by the group. Additional cycles of input and revision to the definition can occur until all participants agree on one standard definition. This protocol includes breaking a more extensive group into small-sized teams. Small teams (3-8) allow all participants to voice their ideas and feel heard. If your whole group is small, using teams may be optional. Virtual Implementation
  • An electronic whiteboard or slide can be used for virtual meetings. Options that work well for this protocol include Jamboard and Padlet, but a Google document or Google slides can also work for this protocol.
    • Important Note: Jamboard does have a limit (currently 50) on the number of people who can access and add to a file. Google has a limit of 100 people, and Padlet currently has no limit to the number of people who can access and edit.
  • Breakout rooms will need to be created for teams. If your group is small (under 10), creating breakout rooms may not be necessary.


Step 1:

Meeting #1 Theme Development Introduce the protocol (5 Minutes) Share the following information with participants:
  • The group will be developing a collective definition of ___(key topic or term)____, to use as the group works together.
  • By developing a shared definition, participants will build a unified and robust understanding of a topic/term to enhance the group’s work.
  • A collaborative protocol will be used to hear all voices and incorporate the group’s input into the definition.

Step 2:

 Development of themes (10-20 minutes)
  • Share the key topic or term with the group in a question format. For example:
    • What does community engagement mean to you?
  • Give participants 5 minutes to reflect on the question and write their responses on sticky notes or the electronic collaboration tool. 
  • Participants should post their responses on a poster or whiteboard.
  • Facilitator(s) should share all responses placed on the poster with the group, or if the group is small, each participant can share their responses as they post them.
  • Facilitator(s) should group similar or the same responses together, creating themes. 
Note: If the group is large, the facilitator(s) should begin grouping similar or the same responses as they are being placed on the poster or whiteboard.
  • Facilitator(s) should then share the emerging themes and ask for further thoughts or ideas around these themes.

Step 3:

Facilitator(s) Formulation of Collective Definition (takes place between meetings)
  • The facilitators meet separately from the group between the two meetings to develop a written definition of the key topic or term based on the emergent themes.
  • The facilitator(s) should reflect on the input from the first meeting and the conversations to guide the development of the initial collective definition.

Step 4:

Meeting #2 Evaluation of Definition with Group (25 Minutes) Team Reactions and Temperature Check (10 minutes)
  • Facilitator(s) displays and reads the definition developed in Step 2.
  • Allow participants time to re-read and reflect on the posted definition.
  • Participants will break into smaller teams and have 10 minutes to discuss their reactions to the definition.
  • Before breaking the group into teams, inform participants that when they meet with their team, they will do a “temperature check” to assess reactions to the initial definition.
    • Getting Consensus with Thumbs Protocol to do the “temperature check.” 
      • Thumb-Up, indicates a participant likes/loves the definition, it makes sense to them, and they will support it.
      • A thumb to the side indicates they think the initial definition is acceptable, but they don’t necessarily love it. They understand it and can support it.
      • Thumb-Down means a participant needs to talk more about the definition and make additions or changes to support it.  
      • If a team member shares a thumb-down, the team should discuss and write out what revisions they suggest.
  • Instruct participants to meet in teams. Grouping of teams can be strategic or random, depending on the group’s make-up.
    • Teams should select a representative to share with the whole group.
    • After 10 minutes, instruct teams to return to the whole group conversation.

Step 5:

Team Sharing and Debriefing (20 minutes)
  • Ask each team’s representative to share their team’s response to the temperature check indicating how they feel about the initial definition and any revision they would like to see made to it.
  • Allow each team 2 minutes to share their responses and thoughts on revising the definition if they did not reach a consensus with thumbs.
  • After all teams have shared, the facilitator(s) should use the following questions to debrief:
    • Recommended Debrief Questions:
  • How do you all feel about the definition?
  • Is this definition a good representation of the responses you all gave? Why or why not?
  • Does the definition resonate with you? Why or why not?
  • If all participants responded with a thumbs-up or thumb sideways when reviewing the initial definition, there is no need to continue with this protocol. The initial definition becomes the agreed-upon definition.
  • If there were thumbs-down reactions to the initial definition, proceed by asking the following additional debrief questions:
    • What major reservations/concerns do you have about the definition?
    • Based on our discussion, would you continue to give the definition a thumbs up, thumbs to the side, or thumbs down?
  • After all teams have shared their responses and any additional conversation occurs, thank everyone for participating and let the group know their feedback will be considered as the facilitator(s) refines a definition to bring back to the group.

Step 6:

Facilitator(s) Refinement of Definition Based on Step 3 Feedback (to be completed outside of the group meeting time) 
  • Facilitator(s) will revise the definition based on the input and feedback from participants. 
  • A third meeting must be scheduled, or an evaluation of the refined definition should be added to an upcoming group meeting.

Step 7:

Meeting #3 Evaluation of Refined Definition with Group Evaluation of Refined Definition (20 Minutes)
  • Facilitator(s) should share that in the spirit of clarity and collective understanding, the group will revisit the definition a third time to finalize and agree upon it.
  • It may be helpful to remind participants of the steps and processes used previously to gather their input in creating the current definition. 
  • Post the refined definition on chart paper/whiteboard/presentation slide and allow participants time to read and reflect on the refined definition.
  • Any participant can share final thoughts or suggestions; the facilitator(s) should incorporate those into the definition.
  • Facilitator(s) should conduct one final Getting to Consensus with Thumbs protocol to ensure all participants agree to the definition if changes occur during this meeting.
  • Celebrate the work done to develop the collective definition.

Resources & Further Reading

Examples of Use

  • Developing a common definition of community engagement-related terms:
    • What is Community Engagement in the group’s context
    • What ‘student voice’ means to the group
    • What college readiness looks like in the group’s context. 
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