Friday, October 28, 2011

Clickers and Questions

This year I got a set of Sentio Response clickers for my classroom.  When the Sentio's (to be referred to as the clickers from now on) were first brought out and available I thought that they were gimmicky and a symptom of bright new shiny object syndrome.  After going to Boston and Allan November's Building Learning Communities conference I really got to thinking about them.  I had a conversation with Donna Desroches (one of our division consultants), and we agreed that they were not worth the $2400 price tag.  The cellphone option of Poll Everywhere was also not possible because of my school's cellphone policy.  So I did what I do.  I found a cheaper way.  That cheaper way was to buy a used set off of eBay for about $500.  Two of the 32 were DOA but the rest worked fine (a third just decided that it did not like the number 9).

Let me start with the conversation I had with Donna.  Her fear was that the clickers were not being used effectively in other classrooms.  They were sometimes just a tool for trying to buy student engagement in review sessions at the end of a unit.  I agree that that would be almost a complete waste of money.

When I went to Boston, Dr. Eric Mazur was demoing his own version of the clickers.  I liked some of his methods and he is the one who got me thinking about using them.  To put it simply he would ask a question.  If the majority got the answer correct he would move on.  If most were wrong then he would reteach.  The magic happened when there was a variety of answers.  He would have the students pair up with somebody with a different answer.  They were to convince each other that they were right.  He said that the students almost always came back with a much higher percentage correct.  They were teaching each other.

I have been using the clickers quite heavily in my Workplace and Apprenticeship Math 10 class.  They are quite useful for formative assessment.  I actually over plan my lessons.  Before I start the actual lesson I ask one or two quick review questions to see if they have the background skills.  The software gives me a quick chart describing what percentage knows it.  If it is too low then I have to take some time to review the skills.  A couple of clicks and I can see it.  If the students get it then I skip the review section and go on to the lesson.  I have not had much luck using Dr. Mazur's method in this class.  This class has some definite gaps in ability and they are very reluctant mathematicians.  I have next to no luck getting the students to formally discuss the math questions.  I still believe in his method, it just isn't working for this class.

The clickers are have a couple of effects in my classroom.  Nobody gets left out or missed.  Every student signs in with their own ID number and I can quickly see who has not answered a question.  I can even go back and see what each student has answered for the question.  It is harder for a student to hide in the corner unnoticed.  Unfortunately it does slow down the pace of the class.  Everybody has to wait for those few students who might have simply let the class move on past them.  On the other hand I have a higher percentage of students engaged (if I don't lose them from going too slow).  Every few minutes there is a clicker question that brings them back in.  They know that I know when they are not following.  The students are not engaged because of the bright new shiny object, they are engaged because I am doing an activity that forces them to keep coming back and contributing to the lesson.

There is another function that allows them to click a button and have their name flash up on the screen showing that they have a question.  I have not used it yet but it also has some potential.

So do the clickers help me teach?  Yes.  The best teaching tool is a good question.  The clickers just help facilitate that question.

Is there a place for them in every classroom?  No.  I don't use them with every class or every period.  I only use them when they fit.  In my WA 10 math class they get used most classes.  I have never used them in Math A30.  Different classes, different students, different needs.  In a smaller class it is better to walk around and look at each individual students work.  In a large class clickers are quicker.  I miss less.

Assessment Questions

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I am sitting at a PD session on assessment.  A couple of questions have come up.  Some I am asking as a devils advocate.  Others are true burning questions that I don't have answers to yet.  They are not really in any particular order.

1.  Is it our job to sort and rank students for universities?  Is my responsibility to the universities or do I have a greater responsibility to those university bound students?  Is it my job to give them the best chance to get in and succeed at university?

2.  Ryan Hackl built upon the earlier question by asking "What is our end goal if we are teaching with the end in mind?"

3.  What if one student can complete an assessment in half the time of another?  Assuming the same level of achievement and effort do they both deserve the same grade?

4.  When you give a zero for an incomplete assignment does that really mean that the student knows zero about the concept?

5.  Why do students cheat?  Is it because they are lazy? Is it because they don't understand the content? Is it because I did not explain the task well enough or did not provide enough scaffolding?

6.  What does it say about our assessment if the mark is based purely upon the right answer?  Is process part of your assessment?

7.  How do you do formative assessment with poor attenders?  What happens if the group you did formative assessment with yesterday is different than the group you are teaching the adjusted lesson to today?