Clicker Conference: Doug Duncan Keynote

Doug Duncan, an astronomer at the University of Colorado and director of the Fiske Planetarium, gave the afternoon keynote address at the clickers conference in Louisville last Saturday.  Much of Doug’s talk, like Tim Stelzer’s talk in the morning, was directed at faculty relatively new to clickers, and his advice on using clickers effectively was all very sound.

One piece of advice Duncan shared stood out to me.  Several times in his talk, Duncan stressed the importance of telling students why you have them engage in peer instruction via clicker questions (if that’s how you use clickers).  It’s not always obvious to students what they should be getting out of these kinds of learning experiences.  Sometimes students think the point of these activities is to punch the correct button on their clickers.  These activities are usually intended instead to develop students’ conceptual understanding, problem-solving skills, and critical thinking skills, but this only happens if students engage in meaningful discussions with their peers.  As Duncan said, “No brain, no gain.”

Explaining your pedagogy to them (in ways that make sense to them) can help them get more out of the experience and develop metacognition (learning about their own learning).  Plus, it can help them appreciate these activities more, which reduces negative perceptions of the use of clickers.

Duncan shared a sequence of clicker questions he uses to help his students see the value of engaging in peer discussion.  First, “Do you prefer I tell you the answers to clicker questions or give you hints?”  At least half of his students typically say they prefer him to tell them the answers.  Second, “Which leads to longer lasting learning?”  Most students admit that Doug giving them hints leads to deeper learning.  Finally, just to make sure the point is clear, “Do you expect to get a job where you have to think for yourself?”  Almost all his students say yes to this one!

These are great examples of what I call “syllabus reminder questions” because they remind students of the kinds of messages often communicated via syllabi.  Students aren’t often in a great position to receive these messages on the first day of class, so reminding students of them throughout the semester via clicker questions can be an effective use of clickers.  (I describe these questions in the “Monitoring Questions” section of my book.)

Conversations between instructors and students about the teaching and learning process can play an important role in helping students learn more effectively.  I’m glad Duncan stressed this point in his talk and provided us with ideas for how to start these conversations.

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