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Instant Gratification to the Rescue!

Ever want to know what your students are thinking?  Worried that many of them are not really grasping the key concepts some days?  Need to find out if they really WERE listening when you were explaining the expectations for a project?  Feel like you want to take a “pulse” of the class overall?  Let me share with you something I’ve been trying a little bit lately.

Students using clickersSomeone let me borrow a class set of “clickers.”  The formal name is “audience response system” (or devices).  The set I have is from California Vision Technologies, and I have really enjoyed using them with staff and students.  During inservice presentations, I have been able to ask teachers about their experiences with certain tools before the training, and then ask them to react in some way to the new tools they’ve just been exposed to.  It’s very validating, as a presenter, to get such immediate feedback.

But the really fun audience is kids.  A few weeks ago, I explained to my fourth grade students what a wiki is, why we would be using one, and some rules for their use of my PBworks site for a project we’re now doing.  In the last ten minutes or so of class, I asked the kids a series of true-false questions and had them use the clickers to respond.  For each question, I was able to explain why a statement was true or false, and I think those students who initially responded with the wrong answer got a better understanding of the expectations for the project before taking home their Wiki AUP forms for parents to sign.  This quick interactive experience served a number of purposes:

  • It gave me a response from every student in the room, without taking as long as it would take to ask each student individually.
  • It gave me a response from even the quiet students who would never speak out loud in front of their peers in class.
  • It gave me a chance to immediately correct misconceptions about my stated objectives and expectations for the project we were about to start.  No one went home misinformed about the project.
  • It got each student involved in the discussion, through a simple, small, yet very engaging tool the kids love to use.

Here’s another anecdote from a recent middle school class.  My seventh and eighth graders are in the midst of a digital photography project.  Last year, I learned that no matter how many examples I gave students of the different required elements for their projects, many kids still had trouble capturing or identifying all the elements in their own pictures.  So I made a series of slides, each with one of my own photographs, and asked the students to use the clickers to identify (from a multiple-choice list) which element was displayed in the image.

Students using clickersSome images actually demonstrated more than one of the elements, and that was intentional.  However, I was really looking for one correct answer that was the “most right” in each instance.  This turned out to be a very eye-opening activity for me as well as for the students.  In each case, I was able to explain why an image was an example of framing, perspective, rule of thirds, and so forth.  I was also able to explain why some responses were NOT correct.  This was probably the most successful attempt I’ve made at helping students identify these elements in their own photography.  Why was it such a success?

  • Instant gratification: for them and for me; when the polling results showed on the screen, students assumed that the majority answer was correct when they initially saw the graphs of the results.  It was fun and funny to point out to them that this was not democracy in action, but rather an uncovering of incorrect assumptions.  They thought more about each subsequent question whenever this happened.
  • Engagement: in any class at any given time, a significant percentage of the students are cognitively off-task.  For whatever reason, they can appear to be involved, but they’re not really 100% in the game.  Requiring students to answer the question, knowing when a few still have not responded, and being able to get an overview of what the class thinks is kind of like living in a game show.  The students were genuinely interested in finding out the right answers.  (Some of them for perhaps the first time since the project started.)
  • Value: in a group of 12 to 14 year-olds, it can be a huge challenge to get them to believe there’s a point to anything a teacher asks them to do.  But once they were hooked, they really caught on to the importance of being able to identify the elements in these pictures so they could do the same thing (correctly) with their own work.  Instead of just showing them slide after slide of examples, I was able to get them interacting with the content.
  • Competition: even though no one knew who responded how, the kids were pretty transparent about their success (or lack of success) with the questions.  What they initially saw as a competition within the group quickly became twenty-something individual competitions with themselves.  Each student wanted to get more correct and do better with each image and its elements.  And they knew in minutes if they were clueless about certain elements.  I got much better questions about the students’ own pictures after that day.

I have not yet used the student response devices enough to really speak to their value in my technology lab class, but I know that if I were back in the traditional self-contained classroom, I would find ways to incorporate these gadgets almost daily.  One can customize the sets to be assigned to specific students or keep them anonymous.  One can also choose to see which devices have yet to respond to a question, which I plan to do to make large-group activities much more effective and fast-paced in the future.

I have plenty of ideas for ways to incorporate these with the students in grades one through eight that I see weekly.  I also welcome ideas for how others have used these devices.  Are you using student response devices in your classroom?  Please share some comments about your experiences!

Close-up over-the-shoulder of students using response system from Flickr user simpson391, some rights reserved, Creative Commons. Student response systems from Flickr user RJH Schoool, some rights reserved, Creative Commons.

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