Clicker questions should be integrated, not jammed in later

The CWSEI group at UBC gets together every week to discuss a journal article. This week, it was a new article by Melissa Dancy and Charles Henderson “Pedagogical practices and instructional change of physics faculty,” Am. J. Phys. 78 (2010).

One of the questions explored in the paper is, why don’t physics faculty members adopt the research-based instructional strategies that so many have already heard of? Mazur-style peer instruction (PI) using clickers, for example.

Dancy & Henderson discovered that nearly two-thirds (64%) of the 722 faculty who completed their survey were familiar with PI and 29% actually used it in their classes. But on further probing, it turned out only 27% of that 29% (we’re down to about 8% now) had students discussing ideas and solving problems multiple times per class. It appears that a lot of physics faculty members equate “peer instruction” with “yeah, I’ve got clickers in my class.” The technology is there but it’s not being implemented in a way that promotes learning.

Thousand of UBC students are using i>clickers.

So why don’t they more-effectively use clickers? One faculty member at my meeting said it’s because creating an interactive lecture takes way too much time: first you have to write the ppt for the lecture, then you have to go back, find clicker questions and insert them into the lecture.

And I think that’ s the wrong approach to using clickers, in physics or anywhere. The jam-them-in-later approach says your lecture will proceed on plan and on schedule, no matter how the students respond to the questions. It says you’re not interested in presenting a concept, asking the students to demonstrate they “get it” and adapting to their responses, be it proceed as planned, stop and review, or re-teach the concept (which doesn’t mean JUST SAY IT LOUDER, as jokes, sort of,  Ed Prather at the Center for Astronomy Education.)

Instead, IMHO, think-pair-share episodes should be integrated into the presentation as it’s being created. (Thanks, @derekbruff, for suggesting the word “integrated”.) While creating each presentation, the instructor needs to view each new concept as students do, and decide if this is the right moment to ask them to demonstrate their understanding with a clicker question. Or another interactive activity like a worksheet, Lecture-Tutorial, ranking task, interactive lecture demo or another of the 24 strategies identified by Dancy & Henderson. Or wait until the next concept when the two can be combined. And be prepared to recap or present the material in a different way (Imagine – creating an extra ppt slide that might not get used!)

Does this take time? The first time, yes. But so does writing a deck of 30, 40 or 50 ppt slides. And you’re not going to have to do that anymore because a good fraction of the material will be presented via the learner-centered activity.

Okay, but making up good clicker questions is difficult and time-consuming. Again, yes.  So take advantage of the reservoirs of questions already available. We keep a (sort-of) updated list on our CWSEI clicker resource site.

The moral of the story: think about building your lesson by alternating episodes of traditional lecturing and learner-centered activities. And be prepared to branch or revisit. Give the students an opportunity to practice and demonstrate their learning right there in the classroom. After all, as Ed Prather, Tim Slater (now at CAPER) and the rest of the CAE team say,

It’s not what the teacher does that matters; rather, it’s what the student do that matters.

What do you think? And if you have a favourite collection of think-pair-share aka clicker aka concept questions you’d like to share, let me know and I’ll try to add them to our clicker resources list.

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