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Thursday, August 6, 2009

How I teach Principles: Clickers

I find myself working on several projects this summer that involve writing about my teaching approach in the 500-seat Micro Principles class and I thought that readers here might be interested as well. Over the next several days, I'll be posting about how I use clickers, Aplia and podcasts.

I use clickers from eInstruction; San Diego State decided a few years ago to standardize with one company across campus and I think it was a really good move (more information about clicker use at SDSU, including faculty and student feedback, and links to research on their effectiveness, can be found here). As more and more faculty have adopted clickers, it has become easier for me to explain them to my students and to justify their cost. I embed clicker questions in the PowerPoint slides using eInstruction’s PowerPoint plug-in so the transition to questions is seamless during lectures. My policy is to make every class worth the same number of points (last semester, it was 3 points; previous semesters, it was 5), each question is worth one point, and if I happen to ask more questions, I just randomly select three (other colleagues adjust the points on each question or make every question worth the same so the points per day could vary). At the end of the semester, I keep the top 25 daily scores; dropping at least a few scores means I can avoid issues with students who forgot their clickers or who have dead batteries, etc. (note: I teach MWF and there are always several days without scores for various reasons; I found that it is better to tell students that I will KEEP the top 25 scores, rather than telling them I will DROP the lowest X scores, because X may have to change over the course of the semester). Last semester, I also made a quiz available on Blackboard that students could take if they missed class; I take the higher of their clicker score or quiz score for a given day. It is easier for students to get full credit if they come to class but by offering the quiz, a) students who attend class get a little extra practice if they want it and b) I believe there were fewer disruptive students in class (i.e., students who were only coming to class to get the points but really did not want to be there tended to talk more, especially given that the size of the class allowed them a lot of anonymity; with the online quiz, they were less likely to come to class, which I feel is ultimately better for the other students who do attend, but I still felt reassured that the absent students were staying on top of the material).

One feature of the eInstruction system that I use occasionally is “pick-a-student”, which randomly draws a name from the roster (a box shows up on the screen with the name and clicker ID). I tend to use this when I have asked the class to brainstorm examples or asked them a question that doesn’t really have a ‘wrong’ answer. Although students don’t love it, they don't seem to hate it either. On a mid-semester evaluation, I asked, "How do you feel about my calling on students in class (check all that apply)?" with the following response options (about 2/3 of the class responded to this question):
  • I hate it and really wish you wouldn't do it (17%)
  • It's not helpful because most of the time I can't hear people's responses. (13%)
  • I'm not crazy about it but I understand why you do it. (65%)
  • It's not helpful if people give wrong answers; I'd rather you just tell us the answer. (11%)
  • It makes me more likely to pay attention in case you call on me. (35%)
  • I like it because it breaks up the lecture. (23%)
  • It's fine but you spend too much time letting students talk. (8%)
In general, student feedback about clickers has been largely positive (I'm compiling some stats from end-of-semester surveys that I will discuss in a separate post). They recognize that the clickers keep them more engaged; for example, students have made comments like, “I pay more attention because I know a clicker question is going to be coming up” and “I like that I can see right away if I get the answer right.” The clickers give the students (and me) immediate feedback on how they are doing, feedback that would not otherwise be possible in that large a class. I think they also appreciate that the clicker questions are similar to what they will see on exams. In fact, now that I have been using them for a few semesters, I have started using old exam questions as clicker questions. When I started, I was concerned about the fact that I can only ask multiple-choice (or numeric answer) questions but I have found ways to use the multiple-choice clicker questions to motivate working on more open-ended questions: I pose an open-ended question (e.g., “Use a supply and demand graph to show what happens to price and quantity if X happens”) and then follow that with a multiple-choice clicker question that can be easily answered if they did the graph first (and I give them less time to answer, since they were already given time to draw the graph).


  1. I really enjoyed this post and look forward to reading any additional thoughts. I have used clickers for 5 or 6 years now in a variety of lower and upper-level courses and find my students nearly uniformly enjoy using them (three cheers for eInstruction).

    Currently I am trying to employ the peer instruction method of teaching in my Principles classes. Peer instruction is many things, but part of it is for the instructor to pose a question in class and have students formulate an initial answer. Then students are allowed to turn to their neighbors and discuss their answers, and change their answer if they need to. Having clickers makes this process work smoothly.

    The way you use clickers and the problems you have encountered are all familar to me. I particularly cringed when you mentioned the problem of talking in a large section and using the out-of-class quiz option as a way to remove the unruly students. I had the exact same problem (however, a big course for me is 80 students) and reacted the same way (I think I commented about this on your blog last Fall.). I have the luxury of solving the problem by going back to teaching small sections (40 students).

    Your suggestion of asking an open-ended question and then following it up with a multiple choice question is a great one, and one that would be especially useful in the context of peer instruction.

    I use clickers to ask 3-4 questions each class that I do not grade. The only graded question is the daily quiz question that I ask at the very end of class (but I allow students to use their notes and consult on that question). As I have come to learn only very slowly, there are a few legitimate reasons why students might miss my class. To save myself the extra work of posting an on-line question for those students, I simply tell tham I give no make-ups for any reason, but I drop their lowest 7 quiz grades. (The @smalli() function in the newest version of Excel makes that very easy to do.) I wonder how the incentives change if you tell them you keep the top 25 scores as opposed to dropping the lowest X scores?

  2. Incidentally, I would encourage you to consider the )on-line) Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning as a possible publication outlet for what you are working on. (http://www.iupui.edu/~josotl/) (Disclosure: I'm on the editorial board of the journal.)

  3. @Robert: The online quiz is definitely extra work that, all else equal, I'd rather not bother with. But I like that it addresses two issues I hear from a lot of students - one, what they should do if they miss class (or forget their clicker, etc.) and two, where they can find extra practice problems for the exams. As for incentive differences, I actually never thought about it - telling them that I keep 25, instead of dropping X, arose from problems in previous semesters where students got all up in arms that I told them at the beginning of the term that I'd drop 7 and that ended up being 5 (because I had some technical issues that meant no scores at all for a couple days). I do think that if you tell them you'll drop X, then at least some students take that as a 'free pass' to miss X classes.

    @doc: I'd really like to get more involved with scholarship of teaching but I'm really not all that sure how to go about it. I may be getting in touch with you soon!

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