“Pointless” Clicker Questions

Clickers are expensive. Since I require students to buy them, I want to use them as much as I can, both in lecture and in lab. Ever since I made the transition to clickers from paper quiz slips, I have presented 3 points worth of clicker questions in nearly every lecture – the exceptions being days when the quiz is written or days when we have an exam.  (I plan to explore the use of clickers in lab, and ideas for written quizzes, in future blog posts.)

For the moment, I want to focus on ways to use clickers that are NOT worth points. Tamar Goulet, a colleague from Ole Miss, gets the credit for opening my eyes to the universe of possibilities for “pointless” clicker questions. I met Dr. Goulet several years ago at a conference, during which she shared some of what she does in her class.

My favorite idea was to use clickers and nutrition labels to reinforce the relevance of organic chemistry to everyday life. The idea is simple: all you have to do is ask students to bring a nutrition label with them to class. Then, when you start talking about fats, have students enter the number of fatgrams per serving into their clickers. The clicker I use, iclicker2, allows students to enter numbers directly; otherwise, you can set up a multiple choice question with a range of values (0-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, 21+). Once you reveal the histogram, ask students to raise their hands if they had a very high (or very low) value. Ask what food they have, and use their responses to start a conversation about health and nutrition.

Fat grams question slide

Students have told me that this exercise gets them looking at nutrition labels more carefully outside of class. I love it when biology makes a sneak attack on the unsuspecting student mind!

A second example of a “pointless” application of clickers is to post a question before class begins, while students are entering the room. It’s easy to put up a slide that asks for their opinion on any topic relevant to what you’ve been covering. For example, in the chemistry section of my class, one of my “entry” slides asks, “If Starbucks posted calorie counts on their menu boards, would you change what you order? [Yes/No/Not sure].” The accompanying illustration shows the calorie counts, right up to a whopping 580 calories for a venti white chocolate mocha.

Starbucks calories question

Since I am a bit of a study skills nut, another question I sometimes ask is how many pages of notes students took during the previous day’s class. I use the results to launch into a brief tutorial on note-taking skills.

One benefit of using clickers before class starts is that your question may inspire students to start talking about biology “off the clock.” Another is that students already have their clickers out and ready when you present your first official, in-class clicker question.

Let me share a few final words of advice about “pointless” questions. First, if the topic of your question is politically charged, controversial, or potentially embarrassing, you might want to advise students to switch clickers with someone else before answering. Second, if your clicker questions normally count for points, be sure to label each “pointless” one as “NOT FOR POINTS” to eliminate any confusion about whether they count or not.

If you have ideas for “pointless” clicker questions, please share them. And if you have thoughts about whether clicker questions should be for points or just for participation, I’d love to know that too.

This entry was posted in Active learning, Assessment, Assignments, Engaging students and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to “Pointless” Clicker Questions

  1. Pingback: One Good Clicker Tip | Teaching nonmajors biology

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