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Low-tech alternatives to clickers

Audience at Humanities TheatreHopefully you’ve heard by now, but clickers are a great tool to use in the classroom to facilitate student learning through peer instruction (PI). Much has been written about them, and if you are new to clickers and PI I encourage you to take a look at what others have said about them, especially the pedagogy they support. Two must-have starting resources are Eric Mazur’s Peer Instruction: A User’s Manual and Derek Bruff’s Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments.

What I like about Bruff’s book is that he uses the more general term of “classroom response systems”(CRS)  instead of clickers.  As Nathanial Lasry said in his article, “Clickers or Flashcards: Is There Really a Difference?” (Phys. Teach. 46, 242 (2008) ), “the pedagogy is not the technology by itself.” Clickers are great for implementing the pedagogy, but sometimes the expense or technology can be a hindrance to using them for the student, the instructor, or both. And there is always the chance the technology can fail. Here are several low-tech alternatives you might consider if you want to use classroom response systems, either to help you get started using the pedagogy or to have as a backup plan in case the technology fails.

  • Flash cards. Up until last summer, I was pretty well set in my ways for using actual electronic clickers for CRS use. That was, until I heard Ed Prather speak at a conference. Prather is a faculty member in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Arizona. He gives his students, members of very large courses (200+ students!), a page which can be folded to reveal one of four numbers as desired. He uses these to solicit student feedback to clicker-type questions, and because the numbers are colored in differently he can scan quickly for student feedback. Implementing CRS in this way requires some pretty stringent rules. For example, Prather requires his students to display their chosen number right up under their chin, and he’s got a strong enough presence to call students out if they start looking at their neighbor’s response before they should.  I was impressed by the method and think it would be great for implementing CRS in a quick and easy manner.
  • Fingers. Similar to flash cards, you could ask students to display one, two, or three fingers to correspond with their answers of A, B, or C to a multiple choice question. Also like using flash cards, you would have to make sure students are not looking at each other for their answers, at least initially, but this could be an even quicker way to get clicker-type questions going in your classroom.
  • Mini whiteboards. Sometimes it’s helpful to write questions for this type of pedagogy that don’t lend themselves easily to brief multiple choice answers. Depending upon the topic, you might be interested in how a student draws a diagram, as I am in physics with free-body diagrams, or maybe you want to see how well your students are picking up the ways to draw three-dimensional chemical structures.  The Paradigms in Physics project at Oregon State University advocates giving out to your students mini whiteboards, which they can use (sometimes in groups, sometimes individually) to draw their answers to a posed question. The students can then display their boards as a group to the instructor, who can scan them to get a better understanding of the group’s work and how the rest of the session might be tailored to their progress. One idea for producing these is to get something as basic as a shower board and cut it up into 12″ by 12″ pieces and giving them out in class.

Great pedagogy is timeless and shouldn’t be tied to one particular technology. Its strength is proven when it can be implemented in multiple ways. How might these low-tech alternatives work for you and your classroom? Do you have experience using them? Let us know in the comments.

[Image Creative Commons licensed / Flickr user batmoo]

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