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Using Learning Assistants to Support Peer Instruction with Classroom Response Systems ("Clickers")

Compiled by Stephanie Chasteen (University of Colorado), based on material from faculty at the University of Colorado: Steven J. Pollock and Noah Finkelstein, Douglas Duncan, and Jennifer Knight (Physics, Astrophysics and Planetary Sciences, and Molecular Cellular and Developmental Biology programs, respectively).
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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project

Summary

Undergraduate Learning Assistants have been used in lecture to assist with facilitation of peer instruction during use of classroom response systems ("clickers"). They circulate the class (as does the instructor), making sure all students are engaged in discussion, promoting useful dialogue, answering student questions, and providing feedback to the instructor on student understanding.

Learning Goals


To increase student learning

Clickers, when used with peer instruction (Mazur, 1997) have been shown to increase student learning when compared to pure lecture. Undergraduate Learning Assistants (LAs) can help facilitate this process, as outlined below. See the SERC module on classroom response systems, Asirvatham (2009), Bruff (2007), and Duncan (2005, 2007) for more information on this technique.

Two students discuss a clicker question in junior physics Details

To increase student participation

By circulating the class during a clicker question, Learning Assistants can:

To answer student questions

In addition to fostering student participation in the question, Learning Assistants can clarify the meaning of a clicker question or answer factual questions, allowing students to productively discuss a clicker question rather than being stuck on terminology or phrasing.

Model sensemaking and justification

Unlike a traditional lecture format, it is expected that students will discuss and debate with each other, even in a large class. The Learning Assistants can be a crucial part in this class transformation. Learning Assistants can model the expectations of the course by showing students how to engage in scientific discourse and expert peer instruction by engaging students in conversation and emphasizing the articulation of reasoning in these discussions.

Scientific reasoning skills. In a classroom using clickers and peer instruction, the focus moves from emphasis on answers to an emphasis on reasoning (Turpen and Finkelstein, 2009). If students get the right answer for the wrong reason, or can't justify why they chose the answer that they chose, then the goals of peer instruction are not being met. Problem solving skills are important in science courses, as is conceptual understanding. However, part of scientific fluency is the ability to engage in debate and articulate reasoning. Learning Assistants can help students achieve this goal: To engage in scientific discourse.

To provide feedback to the instructor

Learning Assistants can report back to the instructor during or after a clicker question regarding common student questions or confusions. This can direct the instructor to either provide clarification on the question before the vote, or focus students' attention on particular aspects of the question after the vote. Students often talk with each other in ways that they do not talk with an instructor; this can be particularly revealing of their thinking process.

To support future science and math teachers

Learning Assistants get valuable teaching experience and mentoring through assisting with in-class activities, as well as increasing their own content knowledge. The Learning Assistant program has improved recruitment of future teachers at the University of Colorado (see Why Teach with Learning Assistants? for more information).


Context for Use

Learning Assistants can be used to facilitate student discussion in any course using peer instruction. "Clickers" themselves are recommended, but not required, as colored cards or other alternatives can be substituted. They are generally used in larger lecture introductory courses, but we have also found them useful in upper division courses. See the SERC module on classroom response systems, the clicker resource page at the University of Colorado (including an instructor's guide and videos), Asirvatham (2009), Bruff (2007), and Duncan (2005, 2007) for more information on this technique.

Generally Learning Assistants are used to facilitate discussion in courses where the instructor cannot reach all student groups at least once or twice during lecture. Depending on the size of the course, one or two Learning Assistants, with or without a graduate Teaching Assistant, can be used to circulate the classroom.

At the University of Colorado, a typical clicker question with peer instruction lasts 3-4 minutes and 4 questions are asked per lecture, on average. An instructor can typically reach about 4 groups during each question, or at most 16 groups, or 30-45 students. A Learning Assistant can probably reach 1-2 groups per question.

Description and Teaching Materials

Student voting
A student votes on a clicker question in chemistry course Details
A clicker question with peer instruction typically includes the following steps:

  1. Students are posed a challenging question
  2. They are asked to submit their vote individually (optional)
  3. Students discuss their answer in pairs or small groups for a few minutes
  4. Students submit their vote post-discussion
  5. The class discusses the answer as a whole

Facilitation of peer discussion

It is during step 3 that the Learning Assistant plays the most important role. During this time, they may:

Other uses of Learning Assistants in clicker questions

Whole class discussion: Learning Assistants can also model productive dialogue in the class during whole group discussion after the vote. If students are reluctant to share their reasoning during this discussion, instructors may use the Learning Assistant as a "foil," asking them to share their reasoning about the question. The Learning Assistant can then model good explanation and argumentation by justifying their answer, so that students know what is expected of them during this process: i.e., sharing of their reasons, not just their answers. Learning Assistants can also "report out" student ideas that they heard during discussion, allowing those ideas to be shared with the class.

Field notes: Some instructors also ask their Learning Assistants to take field notes during class or after clicker questions, providing an inside snapshot of what is happening in the class. Are students confused on a topic? Are they paying attention?

Classroom management: If a group of students are consistently off-task, the Learning Assistant can be seated near their group to indicate that the behavior has been noticed and is being monitored.

A select few Learning Assistants have decided to prepare and present lectures in class. Again, an optional activity for the motivated Learning Assistant, lecture-preparation can take a great deal of time. In physics, one Learning Assistant prepared for a month to give two lectures. The instructor must be deeply involved in this preparation so that the students receive the instruction that they need, and the Learning Assistant has a good experience in the process.

Teaching Notes and Tips


Prepare your Learning Assistants for conceptual understanding

Let Learning Assistants know that they can talk to you during lecture to help clarify a point. Many instructors give Learning Assistants the clicker questions, and answers, in advance of the class. This helps ensure that the Learning Assistant doesn't feel uncomfortable in the face of student questions, guide them towards the wrong answer, or (worse) make up an answer to save face.

Prepare yourLearning Assistants to facilitate discussion

Learning Assistants take a pedagogy course as part of their training so they will know how to facilitate student interaction. But they will need some tips on the particular challenges of student discussion during clicker questions. For example, if one student in a group is dominating, ask them to explain the reason behind their answer. Then ask other members, "do you accept that reasoning?" or "what do you think?" or "have you all agreed?" They may also ask another member, "But what about 'C'?". Having questions with plausible distractors can help Learning Assistants to draw student attention to what is attractive about the other options, making it a higher-level challenge to provide a reason why the wrong answer is wrong. Learning Assistant personality will determine, in some part, how comfortable they are with this role.

Explain the Learning Assistants' role to students in the class

Learning Assistants are a source of authority and knowledge in the class, but they are not necessarily required to know the answer. If students think that the Learning Assistant's job is to give them the answer, they may be upset when he or she is unsure, creating an uncomfortable situation for all. Perhaps the best description of a Learning Assistant is that they are "junior instructors."

Explain your expectations of students

In their undergraduate career, students are rarely asked to explain their reasoning or to work in groups. Thus, it's often necessarily to explain to students what will be expected of them in the activity, and to repeat that explanation often. This will both help the students to buy-in to using clickers, and make the Learning Assistant's job easier. You can see a short video (http://STEMvideos.colorado.edu) of an instructor's class explanation of his use of clickers.

Decide how to distribute Learning Assistants in the class

There are three main approaches to dividing Learning Assistants across a class, especially if you have more than one:

  1. Assign a Learning Assistant to work with specific groups
  2. Assign a Learning Assistant to cover a particular area of the class (e.g., the right half, or the first 5 rows)
  3. Tell the Learning Assistant to circulate where they are needed

Which approach you use depends on your course and your needs. The first two will help the Learning Assistant develop relationships with individual students over the course of the semester. The last option may be better in a large lower-division course where students have many factual questions that prevent them from making progress on the clicker question.

Professor asks question
Instructor asks the class a challenging question in junior level physics Details

Use challenging questions

If a question is simple or factual, it will not spur discussion. The question must be at least a little challenging to the students, so that they need the group in order to arrive at the answer. Examples of good peer instruction questions in the sciences can be found on the STEMclickers resource page.

Meet weekly with Learning Assistants to discuss the class

Weekly meetings also allow Learning Assistants a chance to describe challenges that they've faced so that you can give them tips and strategies, as well as a supportive environment, to provide guidance in their development as teachers. This is also a time for you to collect their observations – either verbally or through written field notes – and get feedback on what is happening in class that you might not be aware of.


Assessment


Previous research has shown that students gravitate towards the correct answer on a clicker question after peer instruction (Mazur, 1997). Another study shows that these learning gains are due to increased conceptual understanding, rather than students finding out the right answer from one another (Smith et al., 2009).

The SERC module on classroom response systems provides many useful references on the effectiveness of peer instruction to promote student learning, dialogue, and reasoning ability.

In order to assess the impact of clickers in your own courses, you may compare sections of the course that use clickers with those that don't on appropriate conceptual inventories developed for your discipline (e.g., physics or geology), other tests of scientific skills, knowledge surveys or formal research.

You may also solicit feedback from students on their attitudes towards clickers (via personal conversations, interviews, and/or surveys), as well as field notes and observations from Learning Assistants.


References and Resources

General resources

Tips for Successful "Clicker" Use by Douglas Duncan, University of Colorado
(A nice 2-pager with Practices that lead to Successful Clicker Use and Practices that lead to Failure.)

SERC module on Classroom Response Systems has a wide variety of best practices and research related to the use of clickers in the classroom.

The Clicker Resource Page at the University of Colorado includes videos, references, and collections of clicker questions

Teaching with Classroom Response Systems is a very useful blog including tips and techniques, and the latest news related to use of clickers.


References

Asirvatham, M. (2009). Clickers in Action:Increasing Student Participation in General Chemistry, W. W. Norton.

Bruff, D. (2007). Clickers: A classroom innovation. National Education Association Advocate, 25(1), 5-8.

Duncan, D. (2005). Clickers in the Classroom: How to Enhance Science Teaching Using Classroom Response Systems, Addison-Wesley.

Duncan, D. (2007). Clickers in the Astronomy Classroom, Addison-Wesley.

Mazur, E. (1997). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Smith, M., Wood, W., Adams, W., Wieman, C., Knight, J., Guild, N., and Su, T.T. Why Peer Discussion Improves Student Performance on In-Class Concept Questions. Science, 323 (5910), 122-124.

Turpen, C. and Finkelstein, N.D., (2009). Not all interactive engagement is the same: Variations in physics professors' implementation of Peer Instruction, PhysRev: ST Phys Ed. Rsrch 5, 020101.



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