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Monday, November 3, 2008

Daily points

[This is the email I sent to my students today, with my solution to the attendance problem I wrote about last week. Coincidentally, InsideHigherEd has an article today on clickers that summarizes some of the issues with using them.]

Dear students,

As I mentioned on Friday, I have been considering how to re-structure the points for the clicker questions. The failure of the clickers this past Wednesday, the number of people who left at that point, and the relative quiet of the ensuing class, made me realize that by attaching points to clicker questions, I may have been doing you all a disservice. I don't want anyone to feel that they "have" to come to class just to get points. Obviously, I would hope that my lectures are sufficiently engaging and useful that you would see the benefit of attendance but I have always believed in treating my students as adults and as we discussed at length at the beginning of the semester, everything in life is a choice, including coming to class. If you don't feel that the intrinsic benefits of class attendance exceed the costs, then I would certainly expect you to do the rational thing and not come.

In a smaller class, I would not be so concerned about "forcing" people to come to class who do not want to be there. In a smaller class, the effect of such people on others, who do want to be there, is negligible. But in a class this size, disinterested students create an externality, and that external cost is borne by the students sitting around them. This is partly my fault - I have not been as diligent as I should be about asking people to stop talking, and I intend to be stricter about this. But I also am going to change the way points are assigned. Beginning on Monday, there will be quizzes posted on Blackboard that are similar (not exactly the same, but quite close) to the clicker questions asked in class. The set-up will be the same as with the clickers in that there will be one or two questions where half the credit depends on getting the answer right, and two or three questions where you simply have to answer in order to get the points. Thus, you can either get the 5 daily points by answering clicker questions in class or by answering the questions on Blackboard (you can do both but only one score will count). The Blackboard quizzes will also replace the open-ended Do-It-Yourself questions and they will be available until just before the next class meeting (e.g., Monday's quiz will be available until 11:45AM on Wednesday). Please note that in order to avoid double-counting in the Blackboard gradebook, I will be consolidating the CPS grades and the BB quiz grades but that won't always happen immediately.

My primary concern is that you learn economics, and how to be productive workers after you graduate, but I recognize that everyone learns in different ways and I do not want to insist that you must learn by sitting in class and listening to me. I hope that this approach will lead to a better learning experience for everyone.

As always, if you are struggling with any of the material, I encourage you to come see me, either in office hours or email me to set up another time to meet. My TAs also have office hours (posted on Blackboard), and the econ department has free tutoring (you just need to sign up in Nasatir 305).


  1. I found this post and the previous one related to it especially interesting because I have noticed the same phenomenon. I use clickers (eInstruction brand) throughout class to guage student understanding, but always have a graded quiz question at the end of class that students answer using their clickers. The ulterior motive, of course, is to encourage attendance. When I taught relatively small classes (25-35 students) everything worked well. This year I am teaching a large class (84 students, large for us) in an auditorium. I think the clickers do encourage attendance, but the level of background noise has become irritating. Some students will talk to their friends in a loud enough voice to be heard all over the auditorium, and other students have complained about the noise. I sometimes stop speaking until everyone quiets down. I talked to the class once explaining why a rising decibel level was rational, but then forbidding them from talking. That was helpful for a short period of time. I have even pointed a flashlight toward an offending student which shut her up but did not do much for anyone else. Your idea to simply stop encouraging attendance is tempting, but I am not to that point yet. What gets me is that I have never had this type of problem before in 30+ years of teaching, and I have taught in an auditorium on a few occasions. I suspect it does have something to do with using clickers to encourage attendance.

    Robert Rycroft
    Univ of Mary Washington

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Robert. I'm certainly curious to see how the rest of this semester goes. My students had a midterm last Friday so the new policy didn't seem to affect attendance much but then Monday was emptier than usual. However, there was still a lot of talking. On the bright side, I've decided that if I stop talking periodically, to get students to stop talking, that could actually be a good way to slow myself down (since I have a tendency to talk fast and go too quickly through my slides). But I do wonder if it's just a cost of teaching larger classes...


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