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Published April 12, 2009 | Mathematics

Pioneering: Early Adopters of Technology

Louise Nobile and Christopher Turner are teachers in the Mathematics Department of Marianopolis College. Using personal response devices (or “clickers”) in their classes, they are pioneering this technology in their department at Marianopolis’s new Westmount campus.

First Contact

Louise first learned about clickers as a student in the Performa class “Integrating Technology in the Classroom”. After seeing a presentation on them, she wondered how the devices might work in her math class. During a recent professional development day at Marianopolis, Louise and Christopher attended two different presentations, both featuring clickers. Louise saw a presentation by David Wells, director of IT at the college, who did an overview of information and communication technologies, including clickers. Meanwhile, Christopher went to a presentation on Peer Instruction devoted to clickers given by physics teacher Nathaniel Lasry of John Abbott College. Shortly thereafter, they both decided to give clickers a try in their own classrooms.

First Attempts

Louise used clickers in a review class to prepare two groups of her students for an upcoming midterm exam. Students worked in teams, even though they had individual clickers. Louise’s first group had a mix of strong and weak students. The other group was more homogeneous. One lesson learned by her in this first experience was that weak students frequently sit together. Next time, rather than let it fall to chance, she plans to make up the teams herself, so that the weak students interact more closely with their stronger classmates to promote peer tutoring.

Other members of the department have expressed interest in what Christopher and Louise have done, and as clicker use becomes more popular it will be easier to share materials within the department and potentially with other colleges. Although one group was enthusiastic, the other was less interested. Louise’s first experience with clickers was with the less enthusiastic group. She feels that there are many possible explanations for why the technology worked well in one group and not in the other. It may have simply been a question of group personality. Or perhaps it was the time of day. The unenthusiastic group met between 2 and 4 in the afternoon. The second and more positive experience was with a group that met in the morning. It could also be that the second time around there was more assurance on Louise’s part. She feels that she would need to use the clickers more often to get the variables just right.

Christopher also used clickers with two groups, both of which reacted positively. Unlike Louise, he tried using them for a couple of weeks to present new concepts and to test the peer tutoring method. For a two-week period, he began each class with a clicker question on the previous lecture’s material before introducing new concepts. Students were able to refresh their own memories. If a significant percentage of the class got the answer wrong, Christopher would review the old material before moving on.

Once Christopher was satisfied that the old concept had been understood, he did a short presentation of new material. He then gave a second clicker question that was just slightly more advanced than the concepts he had presented. He followed the peer tutoring model laid out in the presentation he had seen by Nathaniel Lasry:

  1. he let students vote once individually before discussing the answer;
  2. he then gave the students time to discuss the problem and thereby teach
  3. themselves and
  4. he had them vote a second time on the same question.

As Lasry predicted, Christopher observed a significant migration towards the correct answer during the second vote as the students taught themselves. If after the second vote there were enough people who hung on to wrong answers, he presented the solution to the problem in detail before moving on and repeating the process with new material.

No Second Thoughts

Despite their enthusiasm, Christopher and Louise have discovered that preparing questions for clickers is not trivial.In the end, both Christopher and Louise feel positively about their first experiences with clickers in the classroom. They can see the benefit of immediate feedback to their students: those who remained committed to the wrong answer received a clear signal that not only were they wrong, but that they were in the minority and had to work to catch up with their classmates.

Both Christopher and Louise also feel that the potential of the technology is to engage the hard-to-engage students. Students who have a gift for mathematics will ignite even with the most lackluster teaching. The challenge is to bring understanding of difficult concepts to those students who need more attention than the traditional classroom environment can provide.

A New Reality

Both feel ready to embrace the changes that IT may bring not only to the way that their students learn, but also to the way that they teach and the way that their department functions.But despite their enthusiasm, Christopher and Louise have discovered that preparing questions for clickers is not trivial. First, it takes some time to graphically enter the formulas and prepare graphs for slides. Then, the wrong answers have to be carefully prepared in order to identify misunderstood concepts. Christopher had Reading Week to prepare his two weeks worth of questions for this experiment. In a normal week, however, with course preparation and marking to do, he has trouble finding the time to prepare enough clicker questions.

Louise is teaching Calculus 1 this term while Christopher is teaching Calculus 2. The two teachers therefore can’t combine forces to prepare their material for clickers, and currently of the 22 teachers in their department, they are the only ones using clickers. Both have looked on the web and found some clicker resources, but not a huge amount. Much of what has been posted is for Physics, not Calculus. Though both teachers would like to, neither has had the time during term to prepare more clicker sessions. Other members of the department have expressed interest in what Christopher and Louise have done, and as clicker use becomes more popular it will be easier to share materials within the department and potentially with other colleges.

Both Louise and Christopher plan on continuing to use clickers. Both feel ready to embrace the changes that IT may bring not only to the way that their students learn, but also to the way that they teach and the way that their department functions. The challenges of a new technology are exciting, and IT pioneers have fertile terrain to prepare for those who will follow. Use the Reader Response Feature to share your pioneering experiences with your colleagues.

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