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Monday, August 30, 2010

Clickers, Questions, and Clicker Questions

One innovation that has infiltrated physics education over the last ten years or so is “clickers”. These are little devices that students use to remotely enter answers to multiple-choice questions presented by the instructor. I see several possible goals for their use:

  • take attendance or use in assessment (mini quizzes)
  • help students to pay attention and to promote active learning
  • help students to evaluate and to improve their understanding
  • allow instructors to assess average understanding for the students and to adjust lectures accordingly

One drawback I have found to clickers is that there is a significant cost in time or money to students, instructors, and IT. I have adopted a low tech solution where I simply use colored and lettered cards. This obviously prevents the first goal from being achieved, but that is not an important one to me.

Some of my questions are on my website or linked to the University of Maryland physics question of the week. I project these during lecture while others I simply write on the board. I try to give about half a dozen of these “clicker questions” during every 50 minute lecture. Ideally, these questions require some deep thought, though sometimes they are of the nature of “which kinematics equation should I use to solve this problem?” Most students really seem to enjoy the more interesting questions and learn from them. One student even reported that he had been given one of my clicker questions during a job interview!

At the summer 2010 AAPT meeting, I had the opportunity to learn about many resources for “clicker questions”. I was particularly impressed with the University of British Columbia's website where they provide guidance on effective use of clickers as well as links to clicker questions. I will expand my database of questions and re-evaluate the way I use these questions during lectures.

On a related note, I attended a workshop on alternatives to traditional problems. One idea presented was “context-rich problems” which are realistic, complex, and interesting. The University of Minnesota Physics Education Research Group can be contacted for some of these. Other ideas presented at the workshop included “Jeopardy problems” (students write questions to given answers), ranking tasks, questions with more than one solution, questions that cannot be answered with the given information, and questions with wrong answers provided (students must correct the answers). I like these ideas and I intend to implement them this academic year.

If anyone has additional links to clicker questions or non-traditional problems, please let me know.


Asa Maria Bradley said...

Hey Erik,
Thanks for all the resource links. I'm about to use Clickers for the first time this fall. My division has bought enough clicker sets for a few classes to be able to use them at the same time. I've been checking out the questions that my texbook providers supply with the instructor resources. Have you used anything your publisher offers or do you prefer making your own questions? I want to make sure I give my students a good resource by using Clickers, but I don't want to just "teach to the test" and am worried that using the textbook questions might do.

Karim Diff said...

Erik, after getting frustrated with various glitches and logistical problems when using our infrared clickers, I discovered the possibility of using cell phones to do almost the same thing. With Poll Everywhere ( can ask questions on the fly. And if there is one thing our students never forget when coming to class it is their cell phone. There are some limitations, such as not being able to link the responses to specific students (if you want to use this for attendance or grading purposes), or having everyone respond if students cannot get a signal (in my room T-Mobile subscribers are out of luck) and I have not yet figured out how to insert pictures or graph in the questions (but I can draw on the white board next to the screen). But the free response system allows me to use open-ended questions. I don't get statistics in that case, but we can discuss the answers that appear on the screen.
So far the students have liked it whenever I used it, and it allows me to get some feedback whenever questions arise in class discussions without having to plan this meticulously.

Erik Jensen said...

I don't use most publisher-provided questions. The reason I invent and assemble my own is because I am picky about the questions. I try to get ones that I think will generate lots of wrong answers and heated discussion. This is not because I want to humiliate students, but because I want it to be interesting and possibly illuminate some misconceptions. I try to avoid simple questions that just check if students are awake. You are welcome to steal whatever you like from me, of course.

Erik Jensen said...

I used Poll Everywhere (as a "student") for the first time the day after you posted your comment. One concern I would have is that students would then be tempted to continue texting after answering the physics question. I do really like the idea of free response and that could definitely help with shy students.

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