Archive for the ‘Classroom Response Systems’ Category




Getting to “right” by seeing it “wrong”: Intentionally incorrect simulations

posted: May 31, 2011 by

Simulation of a lser

Simulation of a lser

Computer simulations are a fantastic tool in education — especially in science. They can show us the models that we have our heads, like how atoms pack themselves into a molecule, or let us travel to the moon to see how gravity works.  They can give us insight into the invisible, or let us see exactly what’s supposed to be happening if the world were really a frictionless vacuum.  Some great simulation tools are the PhET interactive simulations, or the Physlet applets. But we too often tend to show students the “right” model, the “right” way of doing the problem, or try to show them the “correct” way of thinking about it.  But, think about it, does a wine expert learn what the taste of “oak” is in a Cabernet only by tasting the very best examplar of “oak”?  No, he tastes a wide variety of wines, to learn to distinguish flavors of “oak” from flavors of fruit or smoke.  This idea of using “contrasting cases” to help students learn to discern and differentiate different features of a problem has been used in a variety of educational settings, from teachers’ understanding of educational psychology, to interactive lecture demonstrations. If you’re not familiar with this idea, or its twin “A Time for Telling”, take the time to at least skim the seminal article by Schwartz and Bransford in Cognition and Instruction:  A Time for Telling. This article changed the way that I think about teaching and lecture.

But, how does this relate to simulations?  Most simulations tend to do the best they can to depict and accurate vision of how the world really works.  And that’s fine, that’s what the design goal tends to be.   However, we also want to teach students to be critical consumers of information — yet they tend to blindly trust simulations.  So, I was very pleased to see a recent article in The Physics Teacher by Anne Cox et al, where they took the instructional idea of asking students to identify”What, if Anything, is Wrong?” and applied it to instructional simulations.  The “What, if Anything, is Wrong?” technique is a wonderfully simple and powerful tool from the TIPER project — check out their website for a variety of other little gems, such as ranking tasks, working backwards tasks, and predict and explain.

The authors of this study not only had students identify the error in the simulation, but provided the code for them to fix it; thus building in computational skill into the classroom practice as well.  For example, we know that students tend to do poorly on questions regarding the electric force on a charged object due to another charged object.   The authors created a simulation where students can add and move charges around, visualizing the force vectors on the object.  However, if they happen to change the charges so that the charges are not equal, they will find that they will no longer push on each other with equal and opposite force (as required by Newton’s Third Law).  So, not only must they identify this error, but also find out what in the simulation is causing it.

Regardless of whether your aim is for students to be able to do computational physics, the brilliance of this task is that students go in knowing that they’re looking for an error — and if that error is one that students often make themselves, then finding it is both challenging and illuminating, and MUCH more powerful than just telling students what is the proper way to think about that concept.  Now, it’s cemented for them.  The authors’ “What is Wrong?” package for electric fields is available on Open Source Physics.

For those who don’t happen to have the time or resources to create intentionally incorrect simulations, you can still use this same method with pencil-and-paper tasks, such as the TIPER “What, if Anything, is Wrong” tasks, or “Find the Flaw” problems.  Daniel Styer write about Find the Flaw problems in the same recent issue of The Physics Teacher.  He has a very nice method for giving these problems.  He presents the problem to the students, and tells them that four friends have worked the problem and produced four different answers.  He asks students to provide simple reasons showing that three of these candidate answers must be incorrect.  So, this is basically a multiple choice problem, with the focus on the incorrect answers, rather than the correct answer.  He provides some examples here. I can imagine using this method with clicker questions and peer instruction — ask the clicker question, but instead of telling students to “find the correct answer” by discussing with their peers, have them determine why the incorrect answers are wrong.  This gives students valuable practice in checking their own work — how do they know if their own answer is right or wrong? They should be able to check the values, units, dimensions (or whatever is important in your discipline).  And, says Styer, students like them:  find-the-flaw problems “appeal to their sense of adventure and of Sherlock Holmes-style sleuthing.”  He finds that students are not a bit better at checking their own work, certainly better than when just asking students vaguely to “discuss your result.”  What a boring question.

And, of course, this can easily apply to watching films in class.  Finding the flaw in films is an old mainstay of science instruction — see, for example, Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics or Bad Astronomy’s Bad Movies or some more geology focused Good and Bad Sci-fi movies.    Showing students clips from movies and asking them to identify the incorrect science is fun and valuable.

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Listening to student conversations during clicker questions: What you have not heard might surprise you!

posted: January 31, 2011 by

600px-Two-people-talking-logoWe have our classroom spies.  And they have sent us their report in a forum that will probably not be seen by the students that they were observing: In a study released last week in the American Journal of Physics, two authors report on over 300 recorded student conversations during clicker questions within 3 introductory astronomy classrooms.  And the results are fascinating.

When we write clicker questions, we typically choose some topic or concept that we think will be difficult for students.  We devise answer choices to capture common pitfalls we think that they’ll fall into.  We expect them to read the question, and discuss amongst themselves — using critical thinking, logic and reasoning to decide between the different choices, until settling on the best choice.

James and Willoughby, however, found that this happened less than half the time (38%).  The rest of the time, students were doing one of the following

  • Falling into pitfalls that didn’t lead to productive conversation (38%) – such as deferring to a confident student, ending the conversation before fully discussing the answer choices, not talking about the reasoning behind answer choices, or just not having a productive conversation to begin with.  Note that this was more of a problem in classrooms where students were heavily graded on getting the correct answer!
  • Giving some answer that didn’t really represent their thinking (26%) -- like using another student’s answer (even when the student doesn’t agree), guessing, or looking for clues in the way the question was phrased
  • Bringing up ideas that weren’t included in the existing answer choices (12%) – like gaps in their fundamental science knowledge, or bringing in irrelevant ideas

This is big news, and gives us insight into what is really happening during peer instruction in a way that we could only have guessed at.  To me, what this highlights is the need for two things during the implementation of a clicker question — things that I’ve always advocated for, but now I have some hard data to back me up:

  1. The instructor should circulate and listen to student conversation. By listening in, the instructor can get some sense of what students are discussing, ask Socratic questions to spur productive conversation, and see how the question might be revised to more accurately capture student thinking.  If the instructor is alone in a large lecture room and can’t cover the whole room, consider using graduate TA’s or undergraduate learning assistants to help circulate, facilitate and listen.
  2. Facilitate a whole-class debriefing conversation at the end of the peer discussion, and discuss the reasoning behind the right answer (and why the wrong answers are wrong) — even if there appears to be consensus. If nothing else, this study highlights that students very very very often give the right answer for the wrong (or confused) reasoning.  Having a discussion about the question, listening to multiple student reasoning, and clearly indicating why the instructor favors the right answer and rejects the others, is critical.
  3. Provide credit for incentive, but not high-stakes. At Colorado we use Mazur’s suggested method, where we give participation credit for clicking in, but extra credit (which counts against the exam scores) for getting the right answer.

James and Willoughby offer some additional suggestions:

  1. Encourage students to share their ideas that do not match the question answers listed, during whole-class discussion or via written feedback at the end of class
  2. Add “none of the above” as a common answer choice
  3. Ask students to rate their degree of confidence in their answer
  4. Ask series of questions, each focusing on one link in a logical chain, to more clearly highlight where students are having difficulties
  5. More clearly guide student interactions during clicker questions (e.g., assess all answer choices, generate your own answer choices if necessary, make note of questions and confusions, ask for help from other students and instructors if you don’t know how to start your conversation).

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Next Gen Student Resumes

posted: January 24, 2011 by

By BenimotoDigital creativity

Internship season is just a few months away, so it’s a great time to think about how to help students put their best foot forward online. I’ve rounded up a few innovative ideas for digital resumes that would be useful as the basis for professional development workshops, or in some cases would work as course assignments.

Video Resumes
Of course the best video resumes are innovative in terms of their narrativity and film-making techniques. But concentrating less on mastering advanced editing and more on developing a compelling concept and storyboard are key to producing an impactful student video resume. Below is an examples of an entertaining, unconventional, effective and memorable video, and there are more examples on Mashable.

How to do this digital storytelling activity in the classroom? If there is not a student AV rental option on campus, and no film and media department to advise and/or loan video equipment, consumer electronics will do the trick, from webcams to flipcams. A seminar conversation about best practices in video resumes is naturally connected to discussion about personal branding — which for a prof interested in digital literacy, is a teachable moment.

Online ePortfolios

There are plenty of tools for building ePortfolios, but after asking them, I learned that my students are partial to, Wix, and There is also Behance, which has a LinkedIn App to showcase thumbnails of creative work on a personal LI profile. Here’s a detail from a Behance portfolio by graphic design student Matthieu Pieters:

Visual Resumes

Infographic resumes are an emerging trend, which is an opportunity to talk/teach about the importance of data visualization, visual literacy, information mobilization and accessibility, iconography and design thinking in our information society. Here’s an example from Pruek Wiyaporn:

I’ve collected a few more examples of visual resumes, including low-cost and free templates, online websites, and Powerpoint/Peynote slide deck versions here. For a quick and possibly in-class activity, have students take their traditional word processed resume and Wordle it—for instant revelation of their dominant personal brand messages. For a lesson on how to create infographics, you might want to show this truly amazing 60-second flowcapping video.

LinkedIn Resumes

And lastly, for students with a LinkedIn profile, converting to a printable, linkable, customizable resume is nearly instant using the Resume Builder app. For ideas for what to include in a workshop on Linked In for students, here is a detail from this handout from DePaul University:

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Two free webinars — teaching faculty about clickers, and effective use of clickers

posted: January 13, 2011 by

Hey, I just wanted readers to know about my two upcoming webinars on clicker use. One is on how to teach faculty how to use clickers effectively — basically, some tips on effective professional development. That’s coming up next Tuesday! The second is a repeat of an earlier webinar — how to use clickers effectively. Details below!

Teaching Faculty about Effective Clicker Use

Time: Tuesday, January 18, 1pm Eastern Standard Time. Register.
Note: Want the recording? You’ll get a download link after the session if you register.

Geared specifically for those involved in faculty development and support (e.g., instructional technologists, faculty excellence programs, or other faculty professional developers), this webinar will cover best practices in helping faculty to use clickers to enhance their teaching. The webinar presenter has been creating faculty professional development materials around clicker use for years, and will share tips and techniques — many based on research — for helping faculty to see the potential power of this technology and learn to implement it effectively. Webinar components will include: (1) best practices in clicker use, (2) resources available for faculty learning to use clickers, (3) research-based techniques for faculty development around clickers, and (4) working with faculty resistance and alleviating frustration. HIghly recommended: Watch “Make Clickers Work for You” webinar recording at prior to this webinar, and/or the video “How to use clickers effectively” at

Make Clickers Work for You

Wednesday, Feb 16th (1pm EST). Register.
In this interactive webinar, we’ll explore tips and ideas for incorporating clickers into your particular class. Clickers offer a powerful way to increasing student engagement and improve learning. At the University of Colorado, we have transformed our classrooms by using clickers to promote peer instruction. We’ll show research results on the most effective use of clickers, and discuss common challenges. In particular, we’ll focus on the attributes of “great” clicker questions, discuss example questions, and share ideas on facilitating effective wrap-up discussions once all the votes are in.

I am a Science Teaching Fellow at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and have been working with faculty and K12 instructors for the past several years on effective use of clickers. See my other workshops, and the videos we’ve produced on clickers in the classroom.

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A great, simple clicker question for showing the importance of student discussion

posted: November 8, 2010 by

When using clickers to spark peer discussion to promote learning, sometimes it can be hard to demonstrate to students the importance of discussing the answer with their peers.  My colleague Steve Pollock just shared this wonderful question with me.

Here’s the question.  Think about it for a moment. Before you read the answers (below), submit your answer via the poll in the right-hand column of the blog.  Just give us a quick response.


Don’t look for the answer before you put your response into the poll!








Steve used this question at the beginning of the semester to make the point that discussion does have a purpose in the class.

When students voted silently, 34% of them got it right.

He didn’t show them the distribution, just asked them to talk to their neighbors.  The next round of votes was 75% correct.

And the right answer?  A.  Did you get it right, or did your gut instinct lead you to the intuitive (but wrong) answer?  That’s what happened to me — I got it wrong on my first guess.  Peer discussion makes you stop and really reason through your answer!

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Writing great clicker questions

posted: November 2, 2010 by

** I’m giving a free webinar, Tuesday November 9th at 1pm EDT. “Writing Great Clicker Questions” is geared toward college science faculty, but all are welcome!  **

I’ve been giving workshops for faculty and K-12 teachers on the effective use of clickers (personal response systems) for the past few years.  By “effective,” I mean using research-based techniques that help students learn.  Across the board, the studies show that clickers are best used to promote student discussion (peer instruction) — clickers can be a way to increase student engagement by getting students to wrestle with challenging questions.

The most enjoyable part of the workshop is when we discuss the challenges to using clickers this way.  Now that I’ve gotten a chance to stand on my soapbox and say how I’m suggesting clickers be used, I’m turning it back over to the teachers to bring up the realities of the classroom.  This is where we really get into the meat of the topic.

Over and over, the main thing that teachers bring up as a major challenge is “writing questions,” or “finding time to write questions.”  We’re not used to seeing challenging questions that are used to help students learn, rather than just to check to see where they’re at.  So, where do we start in writing them?

I’ve recently started to break down the question-writing process into three main areas:

  1. Mechanics
  2. Depth
  3. Goals

Mechanics refers to the wording of the question.  Is it clear and jargon-free?  Are the distractors (the “wrong” answers) tempting?

Depth indicates whether the question requires high-level cognitive processes, or whether it’s relatively shallow.  I find Bloom’s Taxonomy to be a helpful rubric for considering the depth of a question, and the question stems and verbs associated with each level of Bloom’s are very useful in brainstorming questions.

Goals addresses the fact that there are various goals for clicker questions.  Are you surveying students?  Trying to figure out how much they know before your lesson?  Giving them a chance to apply a concept that was just discussed?  Testing what they learned at the end of a lecture?  I really like Ian Beatty’s take on this — and the below outline is taken from one of his short papers written for teachers (TEFA Note #2, Sept 2007).


I am interested to hear what others make of this kind of breakdown of different aspects of clicker questions.

One other item to note is that we’ve compiled some clicker question collections (mostly for STEM education at the college level) on our STEMclickers website.

Want more? Come to the free webinar, Tuesday November 9th at 1pm EDT. “Writing Great Clicker Questions” is geared to college science faculty, but all are welcome.

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Blogroll shout-outs

posted: September 13, 2010 by

So many great blog posts in the education realm this month, I wanted to highlight some of them on the blog.

The Innovative Educator: Want to be a great teacher?  Don’t go to PD. Peter Kent argues that we shouldn’t go to lots of workshops to learn how to use the latest tech gizmo — it’s going to be gone tomorrow.  Instead, create and rely on your own professional learning networks (PLN’s).  By reflecting on your own practice using three guiding questions, you can create and grow your own professional practice.

…and if you want to create a PLN but aren’t sure how, Free Tech for Teachers posted about Teacher Connecting — Find a Collaboration Partner

… and the Innovative Educator also wrote two posts about 5 ways to build your PLN and another about Innovative Ideas for Getting Teachers Excited about Building their PLN, using both social media tools and regular face-to-face contact.

Derek Bruff: Student Motivation and Class Participation — Lessons from Cognitive Surplus. Want to get your students engaged in some of the social media and web 2.0 tools out there?  Derek shows how he is applying the principles from Clay Shirky’s new book on people’s motivations to contribute to social enterprises — the desire to be autonomous, the desire to be competent, the desire for connectedness, and the desire to share — to his classroom this semester, through online discussions, social bookmarking, and a collaborative project.

Technology Tidbits posted about the Top 10 Sites for Creating Surveys/Polls. A helpful reference, with a little information about each service.

Free Tech for Teachers also gave a nice list of 47 Alternatives to Using YouTube in the Classroom. This is the most comprehensive educational video post I’ve seen!  Screening videos in-class can be a way to partition your lecture.

Derek Bruff: Clickers, Private Universes, and Agile Teaching. Derek argues that clickers (classroom response systems) allow you to get inside students “private universe” in a way that’s not generally possible in a large (more than 15 students) class. It’s hard to know what’s happening for so many students without something like a clicker to help you out.

Derek Bruff: Going Nonlinear in PowerPoint. Want to ask the right question for the audience, rather than a linear march through pre-determined clicker questions? Here, Derek shares some neat ideas for non-linear incorporation of clickers using a big powerpoint clicker deck, “choose your own adventure” clicker questions, and Prezi.

Tips, Tools and Technology for Educators: Top 5 Social Media in Education Myths. Think social media is all about entertainment?  Think again.  Read these common myths about social media in education, along with several handy links on how some K12 educators are using it in the classroom.

… In a similar vein, the Innovative Educator wrote about Don’t Silence Students. I was aghast to learn of a university who only allowed students to comment on a social media site through pre-approved drop-down comments, because otherwise students might use inappropriate comments.  The purpose of the teacher is to guide and support students in making meaning through appropriate conversation.  Hear from a teacher who allowed students to earn the right to their own individual blog.

Free Tech for Teachers: 11 Techy Things for Teachers to Try This Year. What a great post, with an outline of several really robust tools and how you might use them, from TodaysMeet (which I just discovered and think could be really cool), Twitter, creating podcasts, Wikis and blogs. Amazingly, he has also published a free 58-page guide on how to use these things, which I’ve embedded below.

// How to Do 11 Techy Things in the New School Year

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Teaching with Clickers: Derek Bruff’s webinar

posted: September 9, 2010 by

Derek Bruff (clicker guru extraordinaire) has shared some nice resources from a webinar that he did recently for the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL) CIRTLcast series.

You can see the whole 60-minute webinar at the archives, but the cool folks at CIRTL also edited it to a nice short 10-minute presentation on YouTube, embedded below.

What I really enjoyed about this presentation was how he tied the use of clickers to what we know about how people learn, such as giving them a chance to reflect on their own knowledge, or creating a “time for telling,” where students are eager and ready to hear an expert explanation, or reducing cognitive load. He really promotes the use of clickers for formative assessment, which is just what we’ve been promoting at the University of Colorado.

Sign up for my upcoming “Make Clickers Work for You” webinar to learn how to write great clicker questions and facilitative effective discussions.

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Do students learn better with peer instruction (clickers)? Does it last? (#aaptsm10)

posted: July 21, 2010 by

I’m still at the AAPT meeting in Portland, and was just directed to a particularly curious piece of research.  Tom Carter (College of DuPage, Physics Dept.) shared his experience in a two-year college using clickers.  Both he and his students were enthusiastic about clickers and peer instruction, and students said that it was one of the most useful things in the course.  He was particularly positive about his use of i>clicker in their courses, which is officially supported by the IT department.  Mazur’s famous studies showed that students do better on conceptual questions after peer instruction.  But, his method also results in students coming to class more prepared, since they are required to do the reading in advance.  So, is the increased learning a result of peer discussion, or a result of better preparation?   Tom did a little study with his students, comparing the following types of instruction:

  1. Traditional instruction
  2. Students doing reading before class
  3. Students doing reading before class + peer instruction in class

His results are provocative — students did better in both groups 2 and 3 on the FMCE (a conceptual exam on the understanding of mechanics in intro physics).  But groups 2 and 3 weren’t different from each other.  I’d be curious to see these results replicated.  At the University of Colorado we’ve seen increased conceptual learning with peer instruction, and we don’t require the reading before class.  So, perhaps peer instruction is a way of achieving the same goals as can be achieved by preparatory reading, in some contexts?

He also pointed out another set of results that are even more provocative.  An earlier study by Watkins and Sabella — Examining the Effectiveness of Clickers on Promoting Learning by Tracking the Evolution of Student Responses tried to answer the question of whether the increased learning that students demonstrate after discussing a clicker question helps them do better on the exam.  They asked a clicker question and measured how many students got it right before discussion, after discussion, and then on the exam.  The results were surprising, at least to me:

  • Before discussion:  31% correct
  • After discussion:  56% correct

Great, so peer discussion works.  What about on the exam?

  • On exam:  31% correct

It’s like peer discussion never happened!  These results definitely merit further exploration. Some possible explanations, Tom Carter suggested, are:

  • So did students adopt ideas of high performing students?
  • Do students have knowledge but not access it?
  • How can we help them trigger formal knowledge?

The implementation of a clicker question is definitely important, as other studies have shown. Perhaps the way that a clicker question is implemented will help that knowledge “stick.”

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Common challenges in using clickers (#aaptsm10)

posted: July 21, 2010 by

hand-on-clicker-100pxAnother post from AAPT Ian Beatty gave a very nice presentation  on common challenges in using classroom response systems, based on the last five years of his work with middle school and high school teachers, helping them to start to use this tool in their class.  Here is more information about that project (called TEFA) — check it out for publications and reports on the project.  Ian also has some wonderful short 3-4 page newsletters he’s created for the teachers in the project – here is my bid for him to post those online somewhere, they’re very useful.

Anyway.  Here are the main struggles he’s seen teachers encounter when they start to use clickers:

1.  Insufficient time to prepare questions.

When you unpack that, teachers are really saying that inventing good questions is hard, and that they’re busy.    He saw that teachers who don’t stress as much about creating questions are those who don’t see the question itself as the be-all-end-all of learning, but rather as a springboard for discussion.  They’re happy to take a question from the textbook, and use it to generate discussion, rather than to work hard to create the “perfect” question.   This is interesting to me, since at CU-Boulder we’re always trying to get people to ask higher-order questions.  Perhaps this causes unnecessary stress for a beginning user?

2.  Insufficient class time.

Again, unpacking this,  what a teacher is really saying is “I have a lot of material to cover” and “discussion takes time.”  A teacher who stresses about this aspect is likely to be seeing class as the place where content gets covered, as opposed to a time to digest that content.

3.  Poor participation.

Are students bored, or are they afraid to speak?   If they’re bored, is content being covered too slowly?  If they’re afraid to speak, is it because they feel that they’re being assessed?  If they’re trying to figure out what the instructor wants to hear (an “answermaking” mode) they’re going to be more reluctant to speak than if they’re focused on exploring their thinking (“sensemaking” mode).  According to Ian, students should not be given any credit for the right answer to a clicker question unless the question will be on a test.  To give an example of how a clicker question can be an exploration tool rather than an assessment tool, he shared one of his favorite question:

   If you were a superhero, would you rather be able to change:
  1. The mass of things
  2. The charge of things
  3. The magnetization of things

This question created some great discussion — and of course, there’s no right answer!

Teachers also faced challenges in the following areas:

  1. Clash with teaching style

  2. Incompatible with subject

  3. Technical difficulties

  4. Behavior problems

He didn’t get a chance to talk about those, but he has a great Prezi presentation that you can look at directly here, and I’ve embedded below.

ADDENDUM:  You can see a thoughtful post about Ian Beatty’s talk over on Derek Bruff’s blog. I think the three of us are becoming a clicker-clique.

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