Clickers in Upper-Division Physics

A couple of weeks ago, Stephanie Chasteen shared a series of blog posts on teaching with clickers in upper-division physics courses: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.  I’m often asked if clickers work well in upper-division courses, yet I’ve not met many faculty members who use them in such courses.  So I was glad to see this series by Stephanie.  It’s adapted from a talk she gave at the American Association of Physics Teachers conference a few months ago, and it includes videos that feature interviews with faculty and students about teaching and learning with clickers.  Here are some highlights from Stephanie’s posts…

One of the students interviewed in the video in Part 1 of the series says that she likes clicker questions because they allow her to take a concept and metaphorically put in her pocket.  I like that metaphor.  It indicates that the clicker question allows her to confirm that she understands a concept, which is useful during class since it helps prepare her for what follows.  This idea that clicker questions allow students to test themselves on concepts during class is one that shows up often in student surveys as a positive aspect of using clickers.  This self-testing is a type of formative assessment, and Stephanie notes it’s important to include even in small classes.

Another type of formative assessment is also mentioned in the same video.  Steven Pollock, whom I interviewed for my book, mentions that prior to using clickers he found himself making assumptions about what his students did and did not understand.  He notes that clickers provide him actual data on his students’ learning so he doesn’t have to rely on his assumptions.  I wonder if this aspect of using clickers is even more important in upper-level courses since common student misconceptions in these courses may not be as well known as in lower-level courses.

Several different types of clicker questions are mentioned in Stephanie’s series: conceptual questions, application questions, review questions used at the start of class, procedural questions asking students to identify the next correct step in a derivation.  I like the conceptual question Steven shared that distinguishes between students approaching physics from a classical mechanics point of view and those using a quantum mechanics approach.  I can imagine this kind of question is particularly useful for students making the transition to an upper-level course like quantum mechanics.

One of the arguments against using clickers in upper-level courses that Stephanie says she hears is that students in these courses are sophisticated learners.  They don’t need the structure of clicker-facilitated peer instruction to help them learn.  Stephanie presents a strong counter-argument, that since these students are more sophisticated learners, they actually get more out of the peer instruction method, more seriously engaging in small-group and classwide discussions.

Stephanie also shares some interesting data on student perceptions of clickers in upper-level courses.  Students who took a non-clicker upper-level course were asked how they would feel if they had taken the course with clickers.  They were resistant, arguing that clickers were for lower-level courses.  However, students who actually went through a clicker-enhanced upper-level course were extremely enthusiastic about their use.  Stephanie points out that students aren’t always able to predict how they’ll respond to a particular teaching approach, which is an important point to remember when trying out new approach in one’s teaching.

Take a look at Stephanie’s blog posts for more thoughts on using clickers in upper-level courses, including thoughts on their role in creating “times for telling.”  Stephanie also contributes to the clickers efforts at the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia, where they’ve put together a 36-page guide to using clickers in the sciences.

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