Blathnaid Sheridan, School of Mathematical Sciences DIT
I have been using the clicker system with a mixed group of Physics students for whom mathematics is a compulsory module during Semester 1 and Semester 2 of Year 1. I have found a huge variability in the mathematical abilities within this group – some students are returning to education after many years in the workplace (and hence have not used maths in a long time), some students have barely met the maths entry requirement for their programme and others still will have achieved a very good grade at Higher level LC maths. My point is that this group is a tough crowd to teach – to keep the weak students working sufficiently whilst not losing the interest of the stronger students.
I interspersed some clicker questions throughout my lectures with this group. I first asked my students to respond to the question individually, without discussing it. Usually, the histogram shows me that most of the students either answer correctly or incorrectly. When some of the students answer incorrectly, this tells me that the question is one worth answering. I then ask the students to discuss the question in pairs or small groups and to submit their (possibly different) answers again using their clickers. This usually generates a buzz in the classroom as students discuss and debate the answer choices with their peers.
Here is a question which I ask on this module:
After the second “vote”, the histogram usually shows me that there is some convergence to the correct answer, choice 2 in this case. This usually sets the scene for our class discussion. I ask a student who has changed his/her mind to share their reasons for doing so with the rest of the class. I will sometimes ask students to question or defend answer choices. I will finish off by working through the correct solution on the board. I have found this a very useful exercise because it helps to explain this question and introduces to the students a visual tool that they can use to analyse similar questions in the future.
I have found several reasons for using clickers to answer questions such as the question above:
- The histogram which is generated gives me very useful information on my students’ learning. If the histogram shows me that the students understand the question, then I can swiftly move onto the next topic. However, if the histogram shows that some/many of the students are confused, then I can focus on the question at hand, using the most popular wrong answer to begin the discussion. Again, I will work through this ‘wrong’ solution on the board and show students why it cannot work.
- Whilst a show of hands will give me similar information, I have found that students tend not to answer independently. The will often look at their peers and this means that the distribution of hands which I see doesn’t accurately reflect the understanding of the students. Using the clickers, students will be able to answer independently, which gives more useful information that I can use to further inform my teaching decisions.
- Individual responses are not visible to the students – all they see is the overall responses via the histogram. However, I can see individual student responses and this allows me to hold students accountable for their answer by counting clicker questions as part of the students’ participation grades. In this way, the clickers provide me with a way to expect every student in the group to engage with the questions which I ask and not just the stronger, more able, more vocal students who are ‘bold’ enough to verbally answer my questions!
- Using the clickers has led to an enhancement of the classroom dynamic. Students become more interested in the correct answer when they see that two or more answers are popular. Also, students are more ready to hear the reasoning behind the correct answer when the histogram shows that many students in the class have answered incorrectly.
- The clickers are a very useful tool for gathering information on student learning and understanding which allows me to make immediate teaching choices throughout the lecture.
The only small criticism that I have at the moment with regards to the clickers is that there is no quick and easy way to input mathematical equations into the Turning Point slide(or perhaps I haven’t found it yet!) except by using the equation editor which is often problematic. I have found that it is easier to use the equation editor in Microsoft Word and then copy and paste the image across into the Turning Point slide. Having said this, the students have not noticed a difference either way and feedback from the students so far has been very positive!