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Stephanie Chasteen




Using clickers with experiments and demos

posted: January 30, 2012 by

Clickers are great ways to involve your class in what they’re learning.  I want to write about one type of clicker question that is particularly adept at enabling whole-class inquiry:  Clicker questions that engage students in an experiment or demonstration.  There are a few ways to do this, some which I find extraordinarily clever.

1.  Using clickers to predict the outcome of a demonstration.

This is pretty easy to do, and lots of research shows that students recall and understand demonstrations better if they’re first asked to consider what they think will happen.  This works particularly well with demonstrations that are intended to show “discrepant events” — something surprising or counter to intuition.   Many classroom teachers use a cycle called “predict-observe-explain” with such demonstrations, where students predict the outcome, observe the demonstration, and then work together to construct an explanation.    Clickers are especially well-suited to the “predict” portion of this cycle.

For example, here is a nice set of demos from Rhett Allain at Dot Physics many of which could be done using clickers.  One common demonstration is that of the Cartesian Diver, where an object that has some small air cavity in it is placed in a bottle.  When the bottle is squeezed, what will happen to the “diver”?  Will it go up, down, or not move?  That would be a great clicker question, especially if you embedded some reasoning into those answers.   Ie., “It goes up because XXX”, “It goes up because YYY,” “It goes down because ZZZ”, etc.

The answer?  It goes down, because, as Rhett explains, “When you squeeze the bottle, you increase the pressure in the liquid AND in the air in the diver. This makes the air bubble get smaller so that the diver displaces less water. The buoyancy force on the diver is equal to the weight of the water it displaces.”

Or, here’s an example from Eric Mazur, which could be easily tested using real equipment (left) and another one from Chemistry (origin unknown; right).


2.  Using clickers as an interactive lecture demonstration

A somewhat more structured way to use clickers with a demonstration is with interactive lecture demonstrations.  ILD’s are a more structured version of the predict-observe-explain cycle, and perhaps the only way that I really distinguish the two is that ILD’s are not always “surprising,” but often structured to help students see and apply particular concepts, usually in physics.  Below is an example.

Slide5Question via Shane Hutson, Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Vanderbilt University.

3.  Clicker questions based off simulations / clicker questions where students generate graphs or other predictions

But you can get creative with this type of question, too.  For one not all demonstrations need to be with real equipment.  Demonstration can be done with virtual equipment — the PhET Interactive Simulations are perfectly suited for this.

Second, you can have students generate their own answers, and then show the multiple choice version.

Here is an example from Kathy Perkins and Carl Wieman of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

First, they show students the Moving Man simulation, where a man will move in response to the input of initial position, velocity and acceleration.  Then, they have students generate their own graphs for a specific situation:


Then, they use common graphs to turn the students’ free-responses into a clicker question:


4.  Use clickers for real-time experiments on the students.

This works best in psychology classes, or some course where you want to demonstrate some fundamental aspect of human behavior.  One of the best ones that I’ve seen in this genre is listed below, which demonstrates our innate tendency to prefer immediate rewards.


5.  Use clickers to gather real-time data that students perform.

Sometimes having a few students performing a quick little experiment isn’t necessarily that compelling, but if you can aggregate data from the whole class then you have a powerful tool for demonstrating a principle or an outcome.  For example, if you want to demonstrate that flipping two coins results in a greater probability of getting a head and a tail than two heads or two tails, it’s pretty boring to have students sit there and do 50 coin flips to get a robust result.  But, if instead, you have each student do their own coin flip, and then click in with their results, you can get a real-time histogram that shows authentic data demonstrating that idea.

A fabulous article on using this technique with students to demonstrate the Monty Hall Problem (a nice statistics problem) was just published in The Physics Teacher. Students were able to perfectly replicate the theoretical prediction as a whole class, running the experiment in pairs.  It’s a free download, so check it out.

Comments: (5) RSS
Categories: Classroom Response Systems, Higher Education, K12, Peer Instruction
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5 Responses to “Using clickers with experiments and demos”

  1. Peter Newbury Says:

    The next generation i>clicker clicker (“ic2″) has alphanumeric output, in addition to the usual A-E buttons. Already, I’m hearing instructors (i) lamenting yet another piece of technology but (ii) gleefully rubbing their hands together because they can ask numeric clicker questions (“What is 2.0+2.0?”) I’m trying to deflect them away from that kind of question because I believe there is little opportunity for peer instruction (if you don’t submit “4.0″ for your answer, what can you or your instructor learn from it?) One way to take advantage of the numeric input of the ic2 is to get students submitting data. With a test audience, I asked, “How many minutes is your morning commute?” Their numeric responses were neatly displayed in a histogram. It was seamless compared to the old trick of getting the students to pick (A) 0-5 minutes (B) 5-10 min, etc.

  2. St. Catherines University Says:

    For a first time user of clickers with third grade students, what start up advice do you have?

  3. Stephanie Chasteen Says:

    I’d like to point you to an earlier post about clicker tips for K12 teachers, which includes a handout with some ideas:

    I know that lots of teachers have used them successfully with elementary students, but this is not my area of expertise. You’ll want to find questions, of course, that are suitable for that age range, and are geared to getting students engaged with the content. In upper grades, clickers have a purpose of transforming lecture environments. For lower grades, the purpose is a bit different, I feel, due to the different atmosphere of those classrooms.

    What sorts of things are you struggling to figure out as you start?

  4. Brandy Geloff Says:

    I like the idea of using clickers to predict the outcome of a demonstration. I could easily incorporate that into my ‘plant’ unit.

  5. Lynette Melton Says:

    I have the >iclicker2 with the alphanumeric answer option and it is a great addition to my physics curriculum. One way that I use it, is to have my students predict the outcome of motion demonstrations or simulations. Using the Phet simulations I will have students match a motion to a graph, then run the simulation to see if they were right. I have also found that doing this helps to keep the talking on task instead of what they will be doing after school. Peer tutoring kicks in during this time as well. Students who got the question correct will start to explain it to the ones who didn’t get it right.

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