Author: Peter Newbury

The birth of a clicker question

It’s easy to come up with poor clicker questions, ones that merely test who has memorized X, Y, or Z from the previous slide. Or questions where there is no way to figure out the answer: either you’ve got it or you don’t.

Good clicker questions, on the other hand, take some time to create. Sure, you might stumble onto a good one every now and then, and it gets easier as you do it more. But it’s really gratifying when you put in the time, and it works. Here’s my story.

The constellation Orion
The constellation Orion(APOD 2008 October 15)

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Using clickers to engage your audience

Today, I had the pleasure of demonstrating clickers to a group of journalists visiting UBC. They’d heard of the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative that I’m part of, and wanted to “see clickers”.

The message I gave them is the one Tim Slater (@caperteam), Ed Prather and the rest of the team at the Center for Astronomy Education have been preaching for years: it’s not what the instructor does that matters; it’s what the students do for themselves. And clickers are a tool for facilitating this learner-centered instruction.

One thing a clicker question can do is quickly engage the audience. These journos are from France, so I posed a simple question

How tall is the Eiffel Tower?

A) 162 metres
B) 324 metres
C) 1024 metres
D) none of these

Is it important students know the height of the Eiffel Tower? No. But it engages them, gets their attention. And the crazy things is, after answering this question, you really want to know!

My audience didn’t all chose the same answer and I didn’t tell them the height. We moved on to other kinds of clicker questions: gathering predictions and think-pair-share (aka peer instruction).

But evidently the Eiffel Tower question was smoldering in a few of them because at then end of my presentation, they asked me to go back to the Eiffel Tower question, and proceeded to have a debate about its height. Apparently 324 metres is not the correct height because, as every Frenchman knows, that includes the radio antenna on the top. Or something like that. The point is, they engaged in my presentation because they had to spend a moment or two thinking and then declaring what they thought by pressing a button on the clicker.

That’s what clickers can do for you.

And once you’ve got them engaged and participating, voila, they’re ready to learn the important stuff.

Interpreting formulas and graphs

When you pose a question to students about a non-trivial concept, and they get it wrong, it’s not obvious where the error occurred, which step they missed or misunderstood.

Every now and then, though, you find a “diagnostic” question that clearly discriminates between the people who have a certain morsel of knowledge and those who don’t. I found one of these questions in the #astro101 class I’m working on.

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