Poor Man’s Clickers, or Re-Inventing the Flat Tire?

As previously noted, I’m planning to do more active-learning stuff in my intro mechanics courses this fall (starting next Tuesday), and as a result have been reading/ watching a lot of material on this (which, by the way, includes far too many slickly produced sales videos and not nearly enough “here’s an example video of a full class using this technique”). This is doing little to make me less apprehensive– most of these assume both a leisurely semester calendar and TA-led recitation sections for teaching problem-solving– but I still like the idea, and want to give it a go.

One of the factors I’m thinking about with the adaptation involves the class size. Most of the active-learning resources I’ve run across talk specifically about the use of “clickers” to record student responses in large lecture halls. Which sounds great, but also feels kind of silly in a class of 15-18. I think we do have one of those systems here, but I also feel a little bad about the idea of making them pay another $20-ish for another gadget. However, it’s also well known that just asking students to raise their hands in class is highly sub-optimal, and I’ve seen a bunch of stuff showing that you need to make students really commit to an answer in order to really directly engage with their misconceptions, which is one of the things clickers help with.

So, I’ve been thinking about clicker alternatives.

I know some people use colored index cards to poll the class, but I have no confidence in students remembering to bring them to class, and I don’t want to have to make replacements all the time. I suppose I could make one set, and have them leave the cards in the classroom (which would work because I’m the only one teaching in there this term…). That doesn’t provide any record of the answers, though, beyond my somewhat spotty memory. And I would like to have some kind of record, so I can evaluate how well the questions work, and whether discussion with classmates actually moves students from wrong answers to right ones.

So, I was thinking of doing this on paper. That is, giving each student a scrap of paper (probably a quarter-sheet cut from the vast pile of leftover book drafts in my office), and asking them to write down their individual answer, followed by the answer arrived at after group discussion. I could collect these at the end of the class (probably without names), and use that information to check how things are going. This would also allow for the “write one sentence about the main point of today’s class” thing that can also be useful for getting a sense of what they think.

My question, for those who do this sort of thing, is whether this is a useful clicker alternative, or just re-inventing the flat tire? That is, is this idea subject to a huge pitfall that I’m not aware of? If it is, I’d rather not waste my time, and will do something else.

24 thoughts on “Poor Man’s Clickers, or Re-Inventing the Flat Tire?

  1. So, not addressing your alternative directly,

    but, with more and more students having text messaging plans, and the ability to send text messages from phones to email addresses, you could implement your own clicker system, whereby students text their responses to an email address you set up.

    You can even write a script to listen on the email for the responses and get the same kind of live statistics graphs that the clicker system gets.

    Other than that, I think you could get your paper system to work. I don’t really see why not, though the real benefit I see to be had from clicker systems is the instant feedback they provide the instructor. You’re proposed system isn’t instant, so you wouldn’t be able to use it to modify the flow of the class, unless you also had them raise their hand, and at that point it begins to feel a little silly.
    Granted, this relies on all of the students having access to a phone with text messaging, or alternatively, a computer capable of sending email, but it is robust enough that you could have students share their phones or computers if the supplies were short, prepending their response with their ID or name or the like.

    In fact, I recently wrote a little proof of concept script that pulls this off with a gmail account.

    Just thought I’d drop the idea as an alternative.

  2. Hey – can I steal your idea for my Limno class? I do think just making them write down an answer will make them think about the question, and a quick summary at the end of the class will be a helpful check to make sure the students got what I was looking for.

    Thanks for sharing your exploration of “active-learning options for the small school”. It certainly helps me as a teacher come up with ideas on how to implement better teaching strategies.

  3. As for you’re proposed system. The benefit I see to be had from clicker systems is the instant feedback they provide the instructor, allowing them to modify their lecture on the fly. You’re proposed system isn’t instant, unless you also have a show of hands or colored cards, but at that point if it is raising hands and recording responses on paper to be handed in later, it begins to feel a little hokey, though I don’t see why it wouldn’t work.

  4. Perhaps it’s too late for this year, but could you get them invested by having them build a clicker? Not sure about cost or how difficult it would be, either for you to source the components or for them to build. A “Build-a-clicker kit” might even work as a product, given the apparent popularity of the clicker idea.

  5. I think this would work. After they discuss and write their second answer, I would probably go around the room and ask a few students to say what their group agreed upon and why, both to get a sense of the class and to promote more discussion.

    As another alternative, could you convince your department to buy a stash of 20 clickers for you to use (distributing before class and collecting after)? That’s what I did when I was in this situation.

  6. but, with more and more students having text messaging plans, and the ability to send text messages from phones to email addresses, you could implement your own clicker system, whereby students text their responses to an email address you set up.

    That’s an interesting idea. I’m not remotely computer-savvy enough to write that, though. I might suggest it to friends in the CS department, though, as something to have students write…

    I’m not sure it’s a good idea to be encouraging students to text in class, though.

    After they discuss and write their second answer, I would probably go around the room and ask a few students to say what their group agreed upon and why, both to get a sense of the class and to promote more discussion.

    I was planning to ask each group for their consensus answer after each question, on the theory that spreading the credit/blame around will make them more willing to answer. I may even poll them by hand– asking each group to tell me their answer without telling the whole class. The number of groups will be in single digits, so it wouldn’t be too hard.

  7. The issue is immediacy and flexibility, I would include student anonymity as well to decrease the stress level. At our school it was very clear that the students saw the clickers as a plant by the faculty to take attendance and mark in-class quizzes. What I did was go down to the dollar store and buy a class set of laser pointers. I give the students a stern talk about appropriate use of the pointers and pass them out at the beginning of class and have them returned at the end. It takes a couple of lectures to get the silliness out (my butt has been extensively laserpointed) but then I can create any multiple choice question that I want on my tablet PC and have the students register their answers with their individual laser pointers on the front screen. The number of dots on a given answer tells me how the class is doing and I cannot know which dot corresponds to which student. I have found this anonymity extends down to micro sized classes of 5 – 6 as well. To differentiate my laser pointer from the students I use one of those bright green lasers for my lectures.

  8. I have my students work problems, in small groups, during class. Then they each turn in their own papers (individually, not as groups) and I grade them for credit. I can walk around the class and see how they are doing (and they can ask for help if confused or lost), so I do get some instant feedback and can address the class as a whole if there are common issues.

    Having them turn in individual papers means that each student actually has to at least write down the answer (with work) to each problem. The down side is that then the papers all have to be graded. But the students learn from this, and don’t complain too much (except for one student last semester who was upset that this meant he actually had to come to class).

  9. Studies have shown that the “paper clicker” idea seems to work as well as the electronic clickers, with the obvious drawback being you can’t record the answers. See the paper by Prather and Brissenden at: http://aer.aas.org/resource/1/aerscz/v8/i1/p010103_s1

    for some details.

    I use a paper version in my astronomy class, that’s printed out in color, and the students receive the first day. If anyone is interested, the PDF file is available at:

  10. For the “write your answer down” type of low-cost clicker you can’t beat whiteboards. If you get tile board from a hardware store and get them to chop it up (see Frank’s $2 whiteboard post) you can have them whatever size you like. OSU paradigms use 10″x16″ ones for their personal whiteboards.

  11. which would work because I’m the only one teaching in there this term…

    Until some group of students who are using the conveniently empty classroom to study[1] either walk off with them or toss out the ‘litter’ someone left behind.

    [1] Or play D&D. Back in my days at UWaterloo we found that a small classroom was near ideal for running a game.

  12. I was going to suggest an iphone/Android app. I’m SURE you can get a CS student do write one as a senior project. Not useful for this year, obviously, but for the future.

  13. I have used clickers in classes as small as 15, and it doesn’t feel wrong at all. We have a classroom set (30 is our max class size) to get around the cost of making students buy clickers. Ask if any other departments do make them buy clickers, though. Our chem dept. requires clickers, and we get all of those students in physics eventually, so they wouldn’t have that expense for our class.

    I’ve tried the colored cards, and in addition to the lack of records of answers, I had a much harder time getting everyone to participate. I would definitely try something like polleverywhere.com or a Google form before I’d try the cards again.

  14. Wow, am I glad I got through physics before this interactive learning stuff. I went to lectures and recitations to listen and absorb, not to answer questions. That’s what homework and tests were for. Maybe I was just a passive swine.

    I do remember teachers changing course in response to our answers on the weekly problem sets, but this was rare. More than one professor gave problem sets expecting everyone to do poorly on them to motivate the next week’s lectures. There is nothing like being clueless to build an appetite for clues.

  15. Chad, Union College ITS has sets of clickers and dongles (that is what they call the receiver that you stick into the USB port of your computer) that faculty can borrow for their class, so you don’t have to ask your students to buy anything. Talk to Kevin Barhydt in ITS, he is an enthusiastic and helpful supporter in making it easy for interested faculty to use this technology. I have been using it (in class sizes ranging from a dozen students to 40 students) for years.

  16. Clickers really helped in my smallish (20-30) upper division classical mechanics course. I don’t think it’s silly at all in a small class.

    Make sure to give students a little bit of time (1-3 minutes) to discuss the questions.

  17. One of the problems with lasers and colored cards and hand raising is people voting for the popular answer without understanding. The nice thing about the clicker system is, you don’t have to reveal the results in real-time. (It would be interesting to experiment with revealing the percentage of the class that’s answered so far, however.)

    I would definitely recommend a phone app, but it’s got to be multiplatform, and that introduces issues of working with Apple’s app store and the various flavors of Android (not sure about other platforms), and I’d add in an internet interface for the kids who already take notes on their laptops. You need a backup system for the kids who don’t have smartphones for whatever reason. Maybe a few IR clickers that you keep in a basket by the door. I think it would be relatively easy to set up.

  18. I kind of like the polleverywhere idea, since it just uses cell phones, which most students these days carry at all times, anyway. While I could get the clickers from ITS, I’d have to either check them in and out all the time, or worry about students leaving them at home or losing them or whatever. And they do have a web form for those few students who don’t have/ forget to bring cell phones, so they can use the classroom computers.

    The one thing I’m a little nervous about is opening the door to texting in class, but that shouldn’t be too big a problem if the class is actually actively discussing the way they’re supposed to.

  19. The poorest-man version I have seen consists of a set of small cardboard cards on a ring: green (yes), red (no), and white (undecided). I think there is a fourth card so they also work for A,B,C,D choices. These are for the direct feedback conceptual questions. Like with clickers, you might get a first response, have them discuss, then get a second response before going over the answer.

    I think numerical work is best done by having them work at desks individually while you walk around and avoid giving too much advice. This is a great way to see if they can draw a free-body diagram, set up a set of equations, or if their notes are pure crap.

    Finally, for group work, you can get 2×2 foot square white boards for each group of 2 or 3 to write out its solution to a some problem, sketch a conceptual result, or give their argument about some concept.

  20. Why do you need a record of their answers?

    The point of clickers is to get them to commit to an answer, then give feedback, not grade them on their answers.

  21. I was in a small class in which, for these smallish, short-answer questions, the lecturer would count “One, two, three:” and everyone would say their answer at once. If the class generally Got It, a nice strong chorus; if no-one knew, timid trailing off; if we disagreed, a few syllables in conflict and then laughter. It seemed to work pretty well even with a lot of shy and ESL students in the class.

  22. CCPhysicist: I have found that having a permanent record of the answers is very useful when I teach a particular course multiple times. It helps me decide which clicker questions were effective, which were not, and gives me ideas for how to change the way I present questions so as to make them more effective.

  23. You might want to check out TodaysMeet (http://todaysmeet.com/). It’s a tool for “backchannel” discussion. I’ve never had a chance to implement it, but I’d love to give it a try myself.

    I tried the “index card clicker” and even had a set printed that were 4 colors with a different color for each letter (A-D). Two letters & colors on one side of the card, the other 2 on the other side. $20 for a box full of cards that could be reused (custom mini cards from Moo.com, if you’re interested – they do good printing work). It keeps students from peering around at the rest of the class before deciding to raise their hands. As you pointed out, though, it’s not great for keeping a record.

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