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Digital distraction in the classroom

posted: July 11, 2012 by

At the start of my summer class this year, a quiet and diligent student asked a seemingly innocuous question.  “Do you allow use of laptops in class?”  Sure, I said, as long as they’re on task.  I had my TA sit behind her a few times and double-check — she was indeed simply using the online lecture material and taking notes as she went.  I was satisfied.  And she was the only student bringing a laptop to class.

But somehow, around week 2 or 3 (out of 5), something changed.  It was so insidious, I didn’t even realize there was a problem until it was too late.  While I had been distracted by the rigors of teaching a summer course, somehow more laptops had snuck their way in.  I was writing on the board, and looked up and realized that about a fourth of the class wasn’t looking at me.  They were looking down, at their laptop or their cell phone.  I became more emphatic, gesturing to items on my slide, or saying, “as we can see here” as I worked a problem on the board.  But despite the fact that I knew that my gestures and board work could NOT be included on the online lecture notes, they did not look up to see what I was doing.  In the final week of class I had a guest lecturer, and I noticed that one of my students was focused on his laptop screen rather than this energetic, award-winning instructor.  I quietly went and stood behind him, and indeed, he was looking at something completely off-task.  I whispered to him to please focus his attention on the lecture.

What is even more shocking, at least to me, was that this was in a small class (only 18 students) where there is no hope of anonymity.  I’m standing right there in front of them, I know their name, and yet somehow texting and laptop use “crept in” behind my back.  Also shocking was the fact that this was no ordinary lecture class, where I was simply reading off the lecture slides and working through example problems from the book.  I had made great efforts to make the course interactive, with clicker questions, hands-on experiments, worksheets and activities, computer simulations, small group discussions, and interactive demonstrations.  Students were paired with “learning groups” that rotated each week.  They were asked to discuss challenging questions with their neighbors.  I had them get up out of their seats to do mini experiments and see how physics really worked.   We discussed explicitly, several times, how important engagement was for their success and their learning.  And yet, when we got into lecture-mode to wrap up and understand these engaging activities that we’d done — so many of them were tuning out.

What happened?

Even in this ideal environment, the temptation of digital distraction was too high.  I might view this akin to addictive behavior now, and realize that students need more explicit support in order to do the right thing for their learning.  I think that the biggest mistake that I made was to fail to have explicit guidelines for use of technology (laptops, cell phones) in class.  I just didn’t think I had to, but now I know that was wrong.  And when I saw *some* off-task behavior, I should not have ignored it for that one time, since that sent an implicit message.  I think that it’s important to be aware of the classroom culture or social norms that are being established, either explicitly or implicitly.  I spent a lot of time implicitly setting up a culture of collaboration, but did not attend to creating explicit guidelines for engagement and behavior in class.

Social contracts

An instructor here at the University of Colorado at Boulder wrote a fantastic article about establishing social contracts about digital distraction in the classroom.  Rather than setting down rules from above about student behavior, Dr. Sieber has students collaboratively develop behavioral guidelines for the virtual and in-person classroom.  This “initiation ritual” helps to create a cohesive community, as well as help students to learn to navigate the online platform for the course.  I wrote last month about improving online discussion boards, and I think that this would have been an excellent first required activity for the online discussion — to establish a social contract.

In a nutshell, here is what Dr. Sieber does with her students:

  • They write two social contracts, one for in-class behaviors and one for online
  • Students first post their expectations of themselves and their peers
  • Students vote on each proposal
  • The individual ideas are put together into a working constitution for the class
  • Students agree to enforce the constitution

Dr. Sieber says that the way that the instructions are framed to students helps to guarantee the success of the enterprise, and provides some sample instructions in the original article.  One thing that shines through to me in all her writings are the immense respect that she has for her students and for the utility of this process.  Over and over I’ve found that students are remarkably sensitive to subtle indications of instructor regard.

In talking to Dr. Sieber, I know that she finds that she does not need to explicitly ask students to address technological distractions .  Students always bring up issues such as laptop and cell phone use in class.  See the original article for details on what rules students often impose on themselves and their peers.


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Improving online discussions

posted: June 4, 2012 by

I’d like to write today about a topic that is rather pertinent, as I’m gearing up to embark on teaching an intensive summer class:  How do you facilitate effective, online discussions?

The use of online discussion boards is increasing — I’ve seen some instructors use class blogs, and encouraged students to post questions and discussions, or perhaps posted a discussion question and required students to respond (via blog comments, for example).  Some instructors use class wikis.  Many course management systems (CMS) now automatically include discussion boards.  I was thrilled to find that this was a feature of our new CMS that I’ll be using this summer.  But then I remembered my experiment last summer, using a course blog and asking students to post comments or questions on the posts.  It fell flat.  What went wrong?

As I’m considering what to do differently, here are a few things that I’ve gleaned from my readings about how to promote effective discussions online.

1.  Make it comfortable

Last year, I just encouraged students to “post questions or comments” on the blog.  I thought that the need to get help on the homework or content would be a sufficient driver to do so.  I guess not.  It’s sort of sticking your neck out to post something online to a group of people you don’t know very well.  This year, my first homework assignment includes some “getting to know you” questions, such as their major and interests and hobbies.  Part of the assignment is to then post whatever they feel comfortable posting on the class discussion board.  This serves several  purposes, (a) getting them to discover the discussion board, which is where some other assignments will be posted, (b) giving them a chance to get to know their classmates, and (c) making their first posting something that is not about the content, but something that is hopefully more interesting.  This kind of “ice breaker” is considered best-practices for online discussion boards, as is providing a “social cafe” part of the board for off-topic posts.

This relates in part to what is called “social presence,” which is the sense of knowing someone online.  Getting a sense of their personality and selves through their postings.  There is a lot of research to suggest that people engage more fully in online discussions when they feel like they know the people they are talking to.  This is an important consideration for the instructor, too — how do you seem like “you” online?  Maintaining an informal tone can help.

2.  Give them a reason to do it

Again, last year, I thought that the motivation of getting help on homework would be sufficient, but it wasn’t. This year, I’m having students submit two types of assignments to the online discussions.  I’m hoping that by having them posted in the discussion forum, it may spark some discussion, or at least students can read what their peers write and see if their struggles are similar to those of their peers.  The two assignments are:  (1)  Post-reading, pre-class preparation questions, asking them to observe something in the natural world or explain something from the reading.  Since the point is to make sure that they do the reading and that they’re thinking about it, rather than that they get the answer right, the option to see each others’ answers is OK.  The other assignment is (2) posting pre-quiz review questions.  I’ve told them that if there are no questions, there is no review.  My hope is that they can start seeing each others’ questions and hopefully responding, and maybe even use this as an online study group.  We’ll see if it works.

3.  Tap in to their desire to share

Derek Bruff wrote on his blog, “Agile Learning” about Clay Shirky’s book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.  I haven’t read the book, but Derek’s posts provide a really useful summary.

In Chapter 3, he focuses on what motivates people to contribute to…. social initiatives. He draws on research by Deci, Benkler and Nissenbaum, and others to describe four common intrinsic motivations: the desire to be autonomous, the desire to be competent, the desire for connectedness, and the desire to share.

So, Derek asks,

“How do you tap into your students’ desires for autonomy, competence, connection, and sharing?”

There are many ways to do this in-class as well, of course, but online, one might ask, what do students want to share?

4.  Make it authentic

To answer the above question, what do students want to share, I think it’s important to make the online assignments authentic and interesting.  In other words, it’s important to provide well-designed questions for the discussion, that help students stay focused and interested.   Derek suggests using questions based on the reading for that day, but one has to be careful to ask questions that students want to answer, that they are interested in sharing their opinion about.  Fact-based reading quizzes don’t promote an interest in connectedness.  You either got it right or wrong, what is the motivation to see what your classmates said, other than to see if you got it right?  Rather, thought-provoking questions are more likely to spur authentic discussion.

5.  Instructor’s role

And what do you do, once discussion gets rolling?  Mostly, just stay out of the way — don’t respond to every comment, so students don’t feel like you’re Big Brothering.  If you act like a good listener, you can know when it would be a good time to interject or add your insight.   If students get off-topic or post inappropriately, it is better to contact them separately, rather than shaming them in public.  Your people-skills are important online, just as they are in-person.  But it might be useful to post some summarizing comments at the end of the discussion, to wrap it together.  And of course, before things get started, it’s important to make it clear to students why they’re doing this, what the payoffs are, and how it relates to the topics being covered in-class.

6.  Credit?

I’m really torn on this one.  Early talks that I saw on the topic of online discussions said to make it really clear to your students what you expect of them in their discussion posts, in terms of quantity and quality.  That students should be graded on whether they post, but also on the richness of their posts, since many instructors find that students will post a cursory and shallow response in order to get credit, but that that doesn’t fulfill the spirit of the assignment.  If one wanted to grade on richness, one can easily use a “0/1/2″ scale, which is very helpful for grading such participation-oriented assignments.  “0″ means you blew it off, “1″ is that you did a somewhat adequate job but with something lacking, and “2″ is the default, for solid work.

However, I have several colleagues who argue against providing grading incentives for items such as clickers, or discussion boards.  This kind of motivation, called “extrinsic motivation”, since it is tied to something that someone is imposing on you from the outside, can sometimes become the end in itself rather than the learning.  My colleague Ian Beatty argues that clicker use in class, for example, should all be for the intrinsic, self-directed motivation of learning the material and doing better in the course.  Derek Bruff wrote on this topic too, in the same posts about the Cognitive Surplus book, about how assigning credit for participation can negate the social contracts in the classroom to participate. Could the same be true of online discussions?  Does assigning a grade reduce the motivation to authentically participate?  The research on grading clicker questions seems to suggest that it might — in classrooms using high-stakes grading incentives for correct answers to questions, the conversation devolves from making sense of the material to desperately deciding on what the right answer is.

I think the best answer, for most of us, might lie somewhere in between.   Provide some credit for doing the assignment, enough to push them to the discussion board, but not so much that that is the only reason that students are engaging in the conversation.

7.  Other ideas?

Some other suggestions that I got from a talk by John Thompson of Buffalo State College at a conference a few years back:

  • Give specific guidelines and rubrics regarding acceptable responses
  • Don’t just settle for opinions:  Opinions must be supported with rational discourse.
  • Don’t have too many, or too few, discussions.  Use enough so that there is fresh content, but few enough to avoid dilution.
  • Bring in a guest participant
  • Publicly acknowledge good participation in order to encourage it
  • Ask for more detail when students submit shallow comments
  • Relate your personal experiences, and keep some humor and fun in it
  • Have students lead discussions on a rotating basis

Please share your experiences or best-practices on using online discussions in the comments!

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The magic of the silver screen: Movie clips to inspire curiosity in the classroom

posted: May 11, 2012 by

As I’m gearing up to teach a summer physics course for non-majors, I’m thinking of a variety of things that I might do to engage this set of students in the wonder of the physical world.  But how to hook them into things that might seem boring on the surface, such as the electromagnetic spectrum?

I’ll be using a variety of techniques, such as driving questions for each module, clicker questions, hands-on activities, and observations of the natural world.  But one that I’m planning to make better use of is video and movie clips to inspire curiosity and investigation.

Movies add real visual impact to a presentation, but even better, they make use of the power of narrative to hook students in.  And when used cleverly, they can be great jumping-off points for a lecture topic.  Here are a few possible uses of videos:

1.  Illustrate a concept

This is probably the most common use of video, but is my least favorite.  Why?  This is akin to the type of boring undergraduate lab that serves only to confirm what we’ve known for hundreds of years — e.g., that a block of wood slides down a smooth metal ramp more quickly than it does a wooden ramp.  These so-called “confirmation” labs offer no opportunity for creativity.  Similarly, a video that only serves to illustrate what the instructor has been discussing is often kind of a “no-duh” moment.  Now, there can be a time and place for illustrative videos, as in the case of a video that does a remarkable job of providing a visual depiction of an abstract concept, or a surprising implication of a concept.  But overall, I prefer the use of video to lead into a topic.

2.  Create a “need to know”

What about using videos to generate questions, and a “need to know”?   For example, one astronomy instructor I know (Ed Prather) shows a video clip that discusses how zebras’ black and white stripes absorb different amounts of light energy, and poses the question of whether the white stripes or black stripes will show up as bright in an infrared camera image.  It’s an interesting question, since the white stripes reflect more light, but the black stripes absorb more to begin with.  But then he stops the video before the infrared image is shown.  The students’ curiosity is piqued, and they’re interested in knowing the results.  He uses this as an opportunity to delve into a discussion activity about the topic of infrared light, absorption, and reflection.  The zebra story serves as a motivator for this activity, and a concrete referent that students can keep in mind while learning about the abstract ideas.  Then they come back to the video to see if they can correctly predict the outcome using what they’ve learned.  Note that the same video could have been used in a very different way, to simply illustrate the ideas after they’d been presented in class.  Do you see why I consider such “illustrative” use of video to be a potentially missed opportunity?

Vacuum tube. I wonder.... what this is used for?

3.  Inquiry starters:  Phenomenon-based learning

We often start a topic, at least in the sciences, by outlining the background of the topic, creating a simple picture, and building up an understanding of something complex.  But what about starting with the complex, interesting thing, and then gaining the tools to understand that complex idea through a variety of activities?  You might show students an object, picture, or video of something a little confusing or curious and ask them to generate a series of “I wonder” questions.  In the sciences, this could be achieved with many existing YouTube or other videos of interesting phenomena by simply turning off the sound, leaving students to view the phenomena without hearing the explanation.  These “I wonder” ques

tions can then be used to lead into activities or lecture, tailored to students’ innate curiosity and questions.  They can also be used to generate inquiry questions for a laboratory or other hands-on activity, providing authentic motivation for students to explore a phenomenon.  For example, a video showing a levitating superconducting magnet could lead into questions such as “is the magnet cold?”  “What kind of material is that?”  “Will it still float if you put a piece of paper between the two magnets?”  These questions could be used to generate inquiry activities about magnets and superconducting magnets.


4.  Video demonstrations and experiments

What if you would like a large class to be able to engage in meaningful inquiry and debate, but there is no associated lab?  One method that is gaining popularity is to use a video demonstration or experiment broken into two pieces — the experimental setup, and the final outcome.  The first part of the video is shown to set up the experiment and the question about the outcome.  Students then work together to predict what they think the outcome of the demo or experiment will be.  In this way, the video serves as a jumping-off point for whole-class inquiry.  Then, after students have worked through their predictions, the end part of the video is shown.  Much research shows that this type of predict-then-show approach to in-class demonstrations and experiments is much more effective than simply showing the demonstration.  Note that you can achieve this same sort of benefit through simulations (such as the PhET simulations) by setting up a virtual experiment and asking students to predict the outcomes.

5.  What, if anything, is wrong?

Hollywood is great at making things flashy, but are they always good at making things right?  Of course not.   This, again, is particularly useful for the sciences.  There are a few great sites, such as Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics, Bad Astronomy Movies, or The Good and Bad in Sci-Fi, where you can get great ideas for video clips of good or bad science.  These can be great little puzzlers for students to figure out whether what is shown is possible or not.


So, happy movie-watching, and here are a few resources to help you out:

  1. Downloading videos from YouTube.  If you can’t be live on the net, here are some tools to download videos for offline viewing.
  2.   An extensive (12,000 and growing) catalog of short video scenes from a variety of films.  In developing the site, Movieclips’ founders have worked collaboratively with Hollywood studios and are therefore able to provide high quality, free, and legal video clips.  Movieclips offers a powerful search function that allows you to find scenes by actor, title, genre, character type, mood, and even dialogue.
  3. TeacherTube This community-based website provides free educational videos, suggested and rated by a broad teacher community.
  4. Teachers’ Domain.  Teachers’ Domain is a free digital media service for educational use from public broadcasting and its partners. You’ll find thousands of media resources, support materials, and tools for classroom lessons, individualized learning programs, and teacher professional learning communities.
  5. National Science Digital Library.  This free digital repository of media for educational use includes a search by audio/visual media, subject, and grade level.
  6. NOVA Education. This free digital library is tied to teaching standards and includes video, audio segments, interactives, and much more.


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7 Clicker Tips for K12 Teachers

posted: April 19, 2012 by

How can a teacher use clickers to maximize student learning?  What are some of the “best practices” that lead to success?  While there is no magic bullet or recipe for making clickers work for you, there are a few things that will probably help maximize the impact of clickers in the classroom.  I recently wrote up a short tip-sheet, geared at K12 teachers.  You can download the PDF Tip-Sheet and share it with your colleagues, and the text of that handout is below.


7 Clicker Tips for Teachers

Effective Use of Classroom Response Systems (“Clickers”)

“Clickers” are electronic devices that allow for real-time polling—often with multiple choice questions. They offer you and your students an instant display of the students’ responses. Use of clickers can help your students to learn key concepts, improve their enjoyment of class time, and let you (the teacher) better gauge what they are ready to learn.

But clickers are not a magic bullet!

The following factors hugely impact how clickers play out in your classroom: the way that you use clickers, the kinds of questions you pose, and the type of classroom structure you use. Listed below are some key strategies—based on research and experience—on how to make sure students get the most out of your use of clickers.

Go beyond quizzes.

While it’s tempting to use clickers as a quick fact-check of student learning, this is just one potential use. As you gain expertise, you’ll find that sprinkling clicker questions throughout class can:

-        Motivate and drive student learning

-        Develop students’ ability to communicate and explain their thinking

-        Help students become more aware of what is difficult for them

-        Help you adjust your teaching according to student feedback

Think of the wide range of questions you already ask your students on the fly (e.g., to get them to draw on their personal experience or get them to connect what they’re learning to the bigger picture). With some careful thought, most of your existing questions can be used with clickers.

Get your students talking.

Students learn more from clicker questions when they have a chance to discuss and debate the questions with one another, before casting their final vote and participating in a whole-class discussion. This method of teaching, called “peer instruction”, helps students to clarify their thinking, and allow students with a stronger grasp of the material to explain the material at a level more easily understood by their peers. Even if students do not arrive at the “right” answer, this discussion is valuable to students to help them to articulate and clarify their thinking. Of course, in order for peer instruction to be successful, the questions must be both challenging and interesting – if students aren’t curious about the answer to the question, or have no trouble answering it on their own, then why discuss it?

Use questions that challenge student thinking.

The limitations of understanding are revealed only when it is applied. Questions that are too simple, or just ask students to recall basic facts, are less useful than questions which challenge students’ ability to explain key ideas. Carefully chosen questions, including distracters based on common misconceptions, can call students’ attention to gaps in their understanding. Questions about which even well-prepared students can disagree, and generate discussion about the reasoning behind the answers (rather than “you know it or you don’t” questions), or even questions without a clear right answer, can yield a stronger understanding of the material.

Mix up your questions.

It’s important to use clickers frequently and to ask a wide variety of types of questions.  Simple questions give students a chance to feel successful; challenging questions push them to stretch their thinking (and help target the top-level of the class).  Consider a wide variety of question strategies to assess what students know about a topic, provoke thinking about something new, predict an outcome, stimulate discussion with a disputable question, or survey your students about their beliefs or experience.  Looking at existing question banks or working with colleagues is helpful as you learn to write questions.

The technology is not the pedagogy.

Nothing about this pedagogy requires the use of a clicker and low-tech options exist.  However, there are several benefits to the use of technology, including:  Anonymity, accountability, all students must commit to an answer, being able to hear from all students, accurate data on student responses that can be displayed to the class and archived for the future, and increased engagement and participation.  There is a definite benefit of students making an answer choice, in that they are more interested in the conversation in order to see how “their” answer holds up.  (We recom- mend giving little or no credit for correctness in order to encourage open discussion.)

Keep the mystery.

After students have voted, you hold a powerful tool in your hands; the results of the class voting.  Be savvy about when to show the histogram of student responses. Displaying these results often cuts short student thinking about the question (since they now feel they know the answer).  Use their curiosity to drive a rich whole-class discussion about the question, focusing on the reasoning behind the different answer choices. Then, once you are satisfied with student understanding of the question content, you can whip back the digital curtain to show how the class voted overall.

Start small.

Incorporating  clickers into your class is a process and does require some preparation.  Start with a few questions per class and gradually increase your use. Don’t be hard on yourself (or your students!) if things don’t work as you expect immediately.  Typically, teachers first concentrate on getting the technology working for them, then on creating good questions. Then they are able to work on more effectively facilitating the whole-class discussion and finally on using student responses to direct their teaching.  Experiment and discuss with other users. Talk to your students. Learn from them what they find helpful, and what they don’t like.  With time you can learn to flexibly integrate clickers into your teaching in a way that stimulates student learning and is an enjoyable part of class – for the students and for you.



While most formal studies have been done in the college setting, many of the best-practices in clicker use are drawn from the broad literature of what helps people learn, regardless of level.  Additionally, Penuel et al. have shown that K-12 teachers and college teachers approach clicker use in a similar manner.

1. The Peer Instruction Network can connect you to other new or experienced users:

2. Literature on best-practices, videos, and question banks available at

3. D. Duncan, “Tips for Successful ‘Clicker’ Use”, University of Colorado (2008).

4. Teacher Learning of Technology-Enhanced Formative Assessment Project (PI:  Ian Beatty), and associated publications:

5. E. Mazur, Peer Instruction, a user’s manual. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall (1997).

6. W. Penuel et al., “Teaching with student response systems in elementary and secondary education settings:  A survey study,” Ed. Tech. Research Dev. (2006).


You can download the PDF Tip-Sheet and share it with your colleagues.


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Clickers: Weighing multiple choice v.s. alphanumeric

posted: March 29, 2012 by

Clickers are a great way to get students thinking deeply about a topic, weighing the arguments and evidence for and against different multiple choice answers.  For example, here is a famous biology question that gets students to confront some deeply held misconceptions:


Many people — university instructors included — will often go for A) or B).  But trees get their substance from photosynthesis — taking in carbon from carbon-dioxide and converting it into mass.  So, the answer is C), and students will often put together a more correct understanding once they get a chance to talk to their neighbors about the question and think more deeply about the process.

But now, most clicker systems offer the ability for students to enter in their own answers, such as numbers and words — called alphanumeric entry – rather than responding to fixed multiple-choice answers.  What are the advantages and disadvantages of alphanumeric entry?

First, to fess up, I was always staunchly against alphanumeric entry clickers.  I had heard from the early beta testers at my university that such open-responses were a nightmare:  Ask students to input the answer to a calculation, and the instructor had to quickly scan over 200 entries to get a sense of the audience.  And to make matters worse, “2.0″ is read differently from “2″ or from “two”, making that visual scan nearly impossible.

But I’ve been changing my tune lately, as I’ve talked to instructors with a different view. Much of what I will write about today is taken from a presentation by Matt Evans, of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin at Eu Claire.  In the abstract for his talk, Moving from Multiple Choice to Alphanumeric Clickers (American Association of Physics Teachers meeting in Ontario, CA in February) he opines:

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. I say that unexamined clicker use is not worth using.

So, with that in mind, let’s examine the possible advantages and uses of alphanumeric entry.

Use #1:  Ranking

I love asking students to rank-order different choices.  But this is cumbersome at best with multiple-choice clickers, leading to horrible answer choices such as BA) 1>2>3, (B) 3>1>2, etc.  Matt gave a few examples of excellent ranking tasks:

Instead of asking:

The highest temperature is:    (A)  0 F   (B)  0 C    (C)  50 C  (D) 100 F   (E) 300K

Instead ask students:

Rank the temperatures from lowest to highest:    (A)  0 F   (B)  0 C    (C)  50 C  (D) 100 F   (E) 300K

This forces students to consider all answers, rather than only needing some limited information to get the right answer.  Matt suggests giving students a visual of the right answer at the end of discussion, since the correct ranking using just the letters (in this case, ABEDC) is hard to parse.

Another nice example that he gave was using graphical analysis:


Use #2:  Choose all that are appropriate / More than one right answer

Again, with multiple choice clickers, if you ask students to choose more than one item in a list, the answer choices become quite clunky. Here is an example from Matt’s talk:


And here is the “reformed” version:


One question I like to use in workshops is the following, but you could only do this with alphanumeric entry:


Use #3:  Avoid “priming” the right answer

Oftentimes, there is something tricky about a problem or a question, but if you show the correct answer in a list of choices, then students will recognize it as correct.  But this doesn’t mean that they could generate the answer on their own.  For example, Matt uses this question with his students:

What is the average velocity?


The answer in this case is velocity = displacement / time = -3 m/s.  Many students will recognize that the negative sign is important if they see it in a list, but may miss it if they have to generate the answer on their own (or on the final exam).

Which leads us to another use of alphanumeric entry:

Use #4:  Numerical Answers

I’d approach this particular use with caution.  We’ve found that when you ask students a numerical calculation question, then they turn to their calculators and work individually.  But the point of using clickers, especially if you’re using it with Peer Instruction, is to get students engaged and discussing the questions with their classmates.  But still, sometimes it can be useful to have students input their own answer rather than giving them a choice of answers.

One item that Matt didn’t cover that I think is another really useful application of alphanumeric entry:

Use #5:  Generate answers for multiple choice

One of the questions that instructors ask me a lot is, “where do you find the tempting distractors for multiple choice questions?”  While one good answer to that question is to pore through your old student exams and homework for common errors, an even easier way is to give students a question as an open-ended question, and then use common responses for next semester’s multiple-choice version of the question.


Of course, there are drawbacks, as Matt admits:

  1. Time. It takes longer to cover these in class, both for students to vote, and for the instructor to discuss the answers with the class.  So, you can’t do as many open-ended questions in a class as you can multiple choice.
  2. Harder to grade or assess. This is especially true if you’re giving points for correctness, which is a common practice (but needs to be done sparingly, to not shut down student conversation).
  3. Harder to get instant feedback from students. A corollary of the above, it’s tougher to scan student responses and get a quick idea of where the majority of the class is.
  4. More complicated to enter. It’s logistically more challenging for students to input this data, but Matt says that his students don’t seem to mind it.

But overall, I admit, I’d like to try alphanumeric entry questions.  They offer a richer opportunity for discussion and student critical thinking, though they’re certainly no magic bullet.

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Webinar, “Make Clickers Work for You”: A powerful tool for instruction & formative assessment in K12 classrooms

posted: March 14, 2012 by

hand-on-clickerOn Thursday, the Transforming Education through Technology (THE) Journal is hosting a webinar (supported by i>clicker) on the effective use of clickers in K12 classrooms.

  • When:  12:00 pm Pacific Time / 3pm Eastern Time
  • Date:  Thursday, March 15th
  • Registration:  Link here

Classroom response systems (“clickers”) offer a powerful way to increase student engagement by going beyond simple quizzes. They provide an opportunity for peer instruction as students discuss challenging conceptual questions with their classmates, giving teachers and students an opportunity to get real-time feedback on student understanding through these conversations and the histogram created by student voting.

Clickers enable more interaction between students and faculty in classroom learning situations. Instructors use this type of response system to present questions interspersed throughout a presentation, receiving immediate feedback about student skills and knowledge. Clickers may also be used for attendance, quizzes, labs, group activities, and more.

Join this webinar on March 15th to hear how the University of Colorado at Boulder utilized i>clicker remotes to:

  • quickly and easily collect instant feedback
  • encourage interactive classroom engagement to increase understanding
  • differentiate instruction to address diverse needs


Handouts and slides

For those of you joining the webinar, you may want to download the:

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New Peer Instruction Network: Find other clicker users and connect

posted: February 21, 2012 by

Steve-CQPeer Instruction — a method of using clickers to engage students by having them discuss the questions with their peers before discussing as a whole class — has become extremely popular in a wide range of disciplines and courses. Visit the Physics Education Research User’s Guide here to see more about Peer Instruction. But instructors typically hear about peer instruction through word of mouth, at conferences or by hearing a talk, and don’t always have a lot of support at their home institution to learn how to implement it well.  And the research shows that this lack of support leads to a lot of instructors trying the technique; and then dropping it; a real shame since research also shows how much it can improve student learning.

But that might be changing.  One of the inventors of Peer Instruction, Eric Mazur, has now launched a new Peer Instruction Network, at  The site is still being populated and reaching full functionality, but already has more than 2000 registrants.  The postdoc working on building out the site writes:

  • 441 registrants report having ConcepTests that they have developed in their disciplines.
  • More than 700 users have asked questions about Peer Instruction, and 1200 have written testimonials about their interest or experience with PI.
  • Users from a variety of disciplines, including (but not limited to) physics, law, biology, chemistry, psychology, mathematics, engineering, astronomy, information systems, computer science, measurement, project management, pharmacy, english, statistics, real estate, sociology, nursing, political science, theology, history, art, and foreign languages.

We are still working to register more users as we continue to build out the full site, including the ability to locate and connect with users in your school, organization, or discipline.

So, if you’re using Peer Instruction, or are curious about it, consider signing up for the network.

Here is the text from a press release released by Harvard on the new network:

The Peer Instruction Network, a new global social site for interactive teaching, launches at Harvard

CONTACT: Michael Rutter, (617) 496-3815

Cambridge, Mass. – February 8, 2012 – Researchers at Harvard University have launched the Peer Instruction (PI) Network (, a new global social network for users of interactive teaching methods.

PI, developed by Eric Mazur, Area Dean for Applied Physics and Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), is an innovative evidence-based pedagogy designed to improve student engagement and success.

Mazur, famous for his talk titled “Confessions of a Converted Lecturer,” developed the method after realizing in the 1990s that his physics lectures at Harvard, while popular, were not helping students to master the basic concepts.

The PI technique relies on the power of the “flipped classroom.” Information transfer (i.e., a teacher transferring knowledge to students) takes place in advance, typically through online lectures. In short, students study before rather than after class.

As a result, the classroom becomes a place for active learning, questions, and discussion. Instructors spend their time addressing students’ difficulties rather than lecturing.

While originally developed for Mazur’s introductory physics courses, PI is now used across multiple disciplines, from the sciences to the humanities.

The Peer Instruction Network will serve as a hub for educators around the world to connect and share their PI experiences, submit questions, and engage with other PI users.

“In the first phase of community building we are aiming to register current and potential users of Peer Instruction,” said Julie Schell, Co-Founder of the Peer Instruction Network and a senior education postdoctoral fellow in the Mazur Group at SEAS.

“So far, the response has been remarkable,” Schell said. “More than 1,900 educators from elementary schools to research universities worldwide, including those in Ethiopia, Israel, Singapore, Vietnam, Finland, Germany, Greece, South Africa, and places like South Dakota, New York City, New Orleans and Oklahoma, have joined the Network.”

Testimonials from network registrants suggest why PI is rapidly becoming a pedagogy of choice: It works.

A science professor wrote on the site: “I use the technique so extensively that I’ve moved my lectures from ‘live’ to video podcasts that the students view before coming to class. In-class ‘lecture’ time is now devoted to Peer Instruction, worksheets, and physics demonstrations. Works great!”

At Harvard, Mazur and his team have long been encouraging other faculty to experiment with Peer Instruction in their own courses. With support from Cherry A. Murray, Dean of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), he has even used it to better engage faculty at faculty meetings and retreats.

“We are amazed by the response to the initial launch of the Peer Instruction Network,” said Mazur. “By connecting people who use interactive teaching methods, we hope to cultivate a community of practice that will have a global effect on educational change.”

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Upcoming webinar: Use of clickers in K12 classrooms

posted: February 5, 2012 by

hand-on-clickerI will be giving a webinar geared to K12 teachers next week, on Weds Feb 15th.  See details below for registration.

Make Clickers Work For You:  A powerful tool for instruction and formative assessment in K12 classrooms

Dr.Stephanie Chasteen
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
6:30 PM EST

We’ll show you how classroom response systems (“clickers”) offer a powerful way to increase student engagement by going beyond simple quizzes.  Challenging conceptual questions provide an opportunity for peer instruction as students discuss answers with their classmates, giving teachers a chance to hear student ideas and misconceptions by listening to their conversations.  The real-time histogram of students responses to these multiple-choice questions also provide instant feedback to both teachers and students as to the precise level of student understanding on that particular topic.  Clicker questions can also be posed before and after instruction, giving quantitative information about the effectiveness of a variety of types of instruction.  We’ll share ideas for question writing, give you practice to write your own questions and receive feedback, and provide a wealth of tips for facilitating class discussion and getting students to buy in to this teaching technique.

Register for the webinar


I have a few handouts for the webinar, which may be useful.

  1. Webinar handout packet
  2. Tips for successful use of clickers
  3. Bloom’s Taxonomy: List of verbs



Below are the slides from the presentation for your reference.

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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.

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Handouts and recording for January 4th Webinar: Make Clickers Work for You

posted: January 5, 2012 by

I gave a webinar this week to what shaped up to be a huge group (almost 500 registrants, a record for me!). This is my introduction to clickers and peer instruction talk. We’ve also hosted webinars  on writing clicker questions and effective facilitation techniques, but this webinar is my quick all-in-one overview.

There are two downloads

You can also download the Instructor’s Guide to the Effective Use of Clickers, created by my group, for free at our resource page: Materials from our past workshops are there too, as well as outline materials you can use for your own clicker workshops.

Feel free to post questions or comments about the webinar in the comments section!

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