Seven tips for the start of the semester

As a new semester ramps up, I find myself thinking of all the little tips and tricks that I’ve learned about clickers. What is most important to think about as you gear up for the new semester? Here are my top 7 tips.

Tip #1: Write great questions
What are your goals for your clicker questions? Do you want students to remember terms, to make connections between ideas, to think about the personal meaning of the content? There are lots of goals for your questions, and the clearer you are about those goals, the better. If you’re clear about your goals, sometimes the right questions pop into view. Often, I will look through my lecture notes and look for places I can ask, instead of telling. Take a look at my earlier posts on How to make a good clicker question great and Opening your eyes to new types of clicker questions and drawing to learn for some ideas. Show your questions to colleagues to get their ideas. Writing questions is an iterative process – sometimes a great question falls flat, or sometimes a question we thought was just review turns out to open up some important conversations. Be tuned in for these opportunities, and think about your facilitation practices (see below) to make sure that you’re giving space for student thinking.

Tip #2: Have a plan for creating student engagement in clicker questions – from the first day
If you’ve got great questions, but students just sit back and wait for the answer so they can write it in their notes, then the question is a failure. Have a plan for how you will show students the value of engaging in clicker questions. Will you talk about how clicker questions help student learning? Will you have them discuss a question, and then show them how many more people seemed to get the idea after discussion? Will you give points? Set the right tone from the first day, perhaps using some really interesting clicker questions and making sure to tell students what they should do during clicker questions. See my earlier post on getting students on-board with clickers and peer discussion for more ideas. And don’t forget to repeat these messages throughout the course – creating buy-in isn’t just for the first week.

Tip #3: Have a plan for implementation
Especially if you’re new to clickers and peer instruction, have a little “script” that you follow for each clicker question. This makes it easier for you to have a smooth approach to clicker questions, so students feel they’re in good hands and they know what’s expected of them. Make your instructions to students clear, and know what you will do depending on their votes. Base your approach on the research on what works. To find out what the research suggests, look at my past posts: Everything you ever wanted to know about peer instruction: How to use it and Best practices in facilitating peer instruction and Reacting to their votes.

Tip #4: Include peer discussion
Have students talk about their answers with one another. Without peer discussion, clicker questions are not as effective at helping students learn. For the research about the importance of peer instruction, see my earlier posts here and here.

Tip #5: Give students a reason to talk to each other
Students won’t automatically get excited about the questions we get excited about. To make sure students want to talk to each other, consider (a) creating questions that are really interesting to discuss, (b) giving credit for participation, and extra credit for correctness, and (c) using student reasoning in the follow-up discussion (this might be reasoning that you overheard, or that you ask students to share). See my earlier post on the pitfalls of grading clicker questions for correctness.

Tip #6: Allow enough time per clicker question
It’s great to have students talk to each other, but you really need to hear their ideas, and to have those ideas drive the discussion about the concepts. Otherwise, you’re just quizzing them. While quizzes have benefit, focusing the discussion on reasoning and ideas is even more beneficial. Plus, it gives you insight into how they’re thinking that helps you direct your lecture. If you haven’t experienced this, try it – you will be amazed to find out what they’re talking about that you had no idea. But it’s hard to make enough time for this kind of discussion – both student/student discussion, and whole class discussion. Pick at least 1-2 clicker questions per class period for which you allow 10 minutes per question for that rich discussion. (Our research suggests 2-5 clicker questions per 50 minute lecture is about right). That said, my students have also indicated that they appreciate that I hurry them a little bit through the discussion, so that they stay focused and don’t get off-track.

Tip #7: Give students incentive to talk about their answers after the vote
I used two techniques last semester that worked well for me – random call on groups, and “sticky points” for individuals who bravely speak up during class. Read more here.