A Few FAQs (with Answers!) on Clickers from #nercompCRS

Two weeks ago I gave the opening keynote at the NorthEast Regional Computing Program (NERCOMP) special interest group meeting on classroom response systems. The event was hosted at Skidmore College, and I’m sure it was a lovely occasion. I wouldn’t know, however, since I delivered my keynote from a classroom in Buttrick Hall here on campus in Nashville. My final exam schedule prevented me from attending the event physically, but some videoconferencing wizards here (thanks Chris from Technology¬† Support Services!) and at Skidmore (thanks, Ben Hardwood!) helped me attend virtually. Although I’ve delivered a virtual keynote in the past, this was my first time doing so live and with high-quality videoconferencing technology.

Moreover, this was my first time (successfully) using Prezi Meeting, which allowed me to control a Prezi using my laptop that the participants at Skidmore viewed on one of their big screens. All I had to do was send a link to Ben at Skidmore. He opened that link on his end, allowing participants there to see the Prezi as I “drove” it from my end. The combination of videoconferencing and Prezi Meeting worked beautifully.

Here’s the Prezi I used. You can click the forward arrow to move through the Prezi along the path I used, or you can use your mouse to zoom and pan freely.

At the end of my opening keynote, I encouraged participants to submit questions about teaching with and supporting faculty use of clickers in a Google Moderator session. Moderator allows users to submit questions and vote other users’ questions up or down. This meant that by the end of the event, when I was scheduled to rejoin the event by videoconferencing, a number of important questions had bubbled to the top of the Moderator list. I didn’t get a chance to address all of these questions during that final session, so Ben asked me to tackle of a few of them here on the blog.

“How do you create a safe space for experimentation and emerging tech (specifically clickers) in the the face of traditional prof assessment and tenure?”

This is an important question, since experimenting with one’s teaching (in any way, using technology or not) is often a rocky experience the first time through, for the instructor as well as for the students. The second or third time using a new teaching method often works very well, but how can we encourage faculty to try something for the first time, running the risk of taking a few dings in their all-important (unfortunately) student course evaluations? There are two constraints at play here. One is that using a new teaching method, like teaching with clickers, takes time to implement. The other is that students are often resistant to do anything out of the ordinary.

To help instructors overcome the former constraint (limited time), I encourage them to make small changes in their teaching over time. For instance, an instructor interested in teaching with clickers might select one or two moments during an otherwise traditional lecture to ask students an application-level clicker question using the peer instruction technique. This need not take too much class time (maybe 5 minutes for relatively straight-forward questions) or prep time (just the time needed to think of one good clicker question), but the payoff can be very positive in terms of student engagement and feedback on student learning to the instructor. Most instructors who try this report back that they’re surprised at how poorly students understand their lectures during the lectures themselves. This often motivates further changes in teaching methods.

To deal with the latter constraint (student resistance), I share the same answers I do to one of the other Google Moderator questions: “What are the common mistakes instructors make which cause clickers to be ineffective?”

  • Don’t ask clicker questions that are too easy. Easy questions may build student confidence and serve to make sure students are awake during class, but they don’t lead to student engagement or learning, and students pick up on this. Too many easy questions lead students to think clickers are a waste of class time.
  • Make sure you respond to the results of a clicker question. Don’t just ask it, glance at the results, and move on. Again, students will perceive clickers being used this way as a waste of time since they don’t inform class discussions.
  • And whatever you do, don’t just use clickers for graded quizzes and taking attendance. Students will resent you using technology to monitor them like Big Brother. Students really appreciate clicker questions when they’re used to improve their learning. They push back pretty hard when clickers are only used to make the instructor’s job easier.

“Is the ‘peer instruction model’ indeed the best clicker model, or should other models be considered as well?”

You’ll notice in the Prezi above that my opening keynote focused on the peer instruction approach to teaching with clickers. It’s the most common way to use clickers, and it’s a pedagogically sound approach. It also does a good job of leveraging aspects of the technology that enhance the learning experience for students. However, there are other ways to use clickers in the classroom that can be very useful depending on your context.

  • Clickers are a useful supplement to team-based learning. Part of the TBL approach includes having students work through challenging case studies in class, first as individuals then as teams. Some TBL instructors have students use clickers (sometimes in self-paced modes) to submit their individual work, allowing the instructors to see how quickly students are moving through the material and giving instructors a heads up on areas of difficulty to be addressed later in class during discussion. During the team activities, each team is required to come to consensus on each question, so giving each team a single clicker to report their answer works well. The results of these team clicker questions can then help guide the team-to-team discussion that follows.
  • If you have your students share their work (papers, presentations, posters, and so on) with each other, clickers can help facilitate peer assessment. Ask students to assess each other’s work using a series of clicker questions, preferably ones tied into your grading rubric. Students are often hesitant to critique each other’s work in public. The anonymity the clickers provide can help break the ice and open class discussions to more meaningful, more evaluative discussions. See this ProfHacker post of mine for an example of peer assessment with clickers in a writing course.
  • Asking students not only to report their answers but also their confidence in their answers can promote useful metacognitive thinking. Some instructors use confidence questions regularly, but I find myself using them mostly on true/false questions. All of my true/false clicker questions now have four answers: true (high confidence), true (low confidence), false (low confidence), false (high confidence). I find that these answer choices give me much more useful data with which to make on-the-fly teaching choices, and they ask students to reflect a bit more deeply on their own learning.
  • Another option, rarely used by instructors in my experience given the prep work it requires, is to use clickers to facilitate “Choose Your Own Adventure” class sessions. You might have students work through a complex problem during class, asking them clicker questions at several points along the way whose outcomes determines the direction of the subsequent problem solving and class discussion. See these posts of mine on “question trees” (my term, not as explanatory, but also not trademarked) for a few examples.

“What’s the next big innovation coming to clickers?”

Hard to say, but my money is on live, educational crowdsourcing using mobile devices like smart phones, tablets, and laptops. For instance, a few weeks ago in my statistics course, I asked students to collaborate in the development of an analytic rubric for use in their infographic project. A Google Docs spreadsheet worked well enough for this, but I can imagine more sophisticated apps that would make this kind of activity more efficient and effective. Google Moderator, for instance, makes handling Q&A easier and more effective, since the questions of relevance to the most people are the ones that rise to the top of the list. And Prezi Meeting worked well as a collaborative platform for creating a debate map in my cryptography course last year.

Earlier this semester, I asked students to sketch (using pen and paper) ideas for visualizing a complex set of ecological footprint data. With 70 students (and no document camera), I decided that the simplest way for us to view and discuss a few of these sketches was to have students use their phones to photograph their sketches and send them to my email account via email or SMS text messaging. (Most carriers in the US will let you send a text message, even one with an image, to an email account.) This let me pull up a few images on the big screen for classwide discussion. As with the Google Docs spreadsheet, this wasn’t a particularly elegant way to facilitate this activity, but it worked. Having student photos automatically show up on a page of thumbnail images would have worked better, however.

These examples may not seem to be similar to the use of clickers, but I would consider them as part of a broader understanding of a “classroom response system.” In each case, students are able to submit responses (text and images instead of multiple-choice answers) independently and I’m able to aggregate those responses in some way (not a bar chart, but something content-specific) that facilitates class discussion. In that sense, I see classroom response systems moving toward these kinds of in-class, synchronous applications.

Image: “NERCOMP Back to the Clicker,” Ben Harwood, Flickr (CC)

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