So long clicker participation points

I use clickers in all my “lecture”-based courses, with enrollments in these courses ranging from 10-36. I have offered participation marks to students for answering at least a certain percentage of the clicker questions in a given class. At first I was giving out 5% of their total mark, then 2%, and now it looks like I’m doing away with those marks completely.

I have never really liked the idea of giving marks for attendance (even though that is basically what I was doing). I was following the common advice that I had encountered from places such as CWSEI’s Clicker Resource Guide and other folks who have used clickers a lot. And it seemed reasonable to me. My classes are very interactive and there are students that might otherwise try to zone out or not show up, and I always try my best to help the bottom quartile succeed. But this sort of practice raises all sort of issues with external motivators. Of course I give tons of marks to students for doing their pre-class reading/screencast viewing assignments so I am not above giving participation marks to students for doing things which I think will help them learn.

When giving clicker participation marks I have always allowed students 3-4 free days that they can miss or not participate, and not be penalized. But I always end up with a few students that want exceptions above and beyond these free days. Doing away with the clicker participation points also does away with this hassle.

The last thing that it accomplishes is that I hope it will reduce guessing on clicker questions. With the clicker questions not being worth any marks, I can ask students not to randomly guess and only answer a question if they have some reason to believe the answer they are choosing. Back in January Peter Newbury talked about how, due to student guessing, you can overestimate how many people actually got a given clicker question correct. Without the participation points, students can feel that they won’t be penalized for not answering a question, which I hope will reduce the guessing effect. Of course another way to get at the guessing effect is to, every so often, ask them a clicker question about how confident they were in their answer, and to have “Randomly guessed” be one of the options.

I have enough data to know what sort of participation level to expect in my own courses with the clicker participation marks being dangled in front of the students. So I will be able to compare the participation level between using clicker participation marks and not after the fact. Of course these numbers will be convoluted with my slowly improving ability to generate student buy-in, but I will at worst be able to tell if participation went down.

So long clicker participation points, I hope I never feel the need to use you again.

22 Comments on “So long clicker participation points”

  1. I, too, am struggling what to recommend to instructors using clickers when it comes to points. There are so many competing factors

    – shouldn’t they be rewarded for their participation and engagement?
    – perhaps the “reward” of higher success on the exams is enough? That’s a bit naive, I think – we all respond better to immediate rewards/penalty
    – in large classes, points promote participation because there is rarely the face-to-face accountability that can occur in small classes. Not that an instructor in a large class CAN’T make the students participate but that requires a lot a “presence” by the instructor
    – there are no participation points in classes that use coloured ABCD voting cards and those instructors instructors have no problem with peer instruction. Well, mostly no problem. If they have the “presence” to get all the students engaged

    I’m not sure there is one, best-practice because it depends on so many factors. Hmm, that would be interesting to explore. A kind of flow-chart for how to assign (or not) peer instruction points. (“Can you make eye contact with every student in the classroom? Yes go here, No go there.”)

    I’ll be interested, Joss, to hear if you find any differences when you remove the points. And thanks for the pingback.


    • Joss Ives says:

      Thanks for the comments Peter. I do think that the size of the class weighs heavily in this decision, and that there are many factors that an individual instructor has to consider for their own situation.

      And you make an excellent point that the “voting card” peer instruction implementers seem to be able to get away without worrying about participation points.

  2. bretbenesh says:

    Hi Joss,

    I am moving from “occasional clicker-user” to “full-time clicker-user” this semester, and I am not going to give them points for it. You are making me feel more confident about my decision.

    I am also planning on not giving my students points for their pre-reading questions. I feel much more hesitant about this, but I think that I will just see what happens.

    Finally, a big thanks for posting about students guessing on clicker questions. When I did use clickers last year, there were several times when I moved on because 70% of the students got the right answer. I now know that probably on about 60% of the students understood.

    • Joss Ives says:

      Marks for homework and marks for pre-reading are roughly the same idea to me. With homework, most students that bother to complete it (through legit or illegit means) will have the basically the same overall homework marks whether the homework was marked for correctness or just for completion. And this is true of paper or online homework systems.

      But a total paradigm change such as SBG changes all of this (to be discussed below in response to Andy’ comment). And Bret, you are a SBG implementer!

  3. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

    My recent experiments with SBG have caused me to look with much skepticism on “completion” points (attendance, clickers, etc). What I like about sbg-type approaches is that the points come for showing understanding and everything else is in service to that.

    Prior to my sbg stuff I would give points for submitting summaries and questions (though I made it only help your grade, never hurt) but never points for clickers. The latter was mostly due to the fact that they took a new clicker every class because I brought in the big bucket of them. More recently I’ve gone back to colored-cards and so the students really know that I’m not keeping track. I wonder if there’s a difference between telling them you won’t collect the info and showing that it’s technologically not possible (with the cards, I mean).

    • Joss Ives says:

      As you say Andy, the entire framework of SBG is points for understanding and everything else in service to that. But I think that it is so different from a student’s regular experience that they have to completely rethink their recipes for success for an SBG course. Students are used to not being bribed to come to class. They (mostly) get that coming to class is a piece of the learning puzzle. But would they attend labs if they were not for marks (sadly admitting that most intro labs are not structured to help the students learn much physics content knowledge)?

      Last year that I taught I used UW’s Tutorials in mechanics, but decided not to run the E&M ones in the second term. A whole bunch of students begged me to run them, not for credit, during office hours. These students told me how much the tutorials had helped them learn in Mechanics and they wanted to have that same learning resource again for E&M. Attendance on these was abysmal. The students that had requested I run them were mostly too worried about keeping up in their other courses to show up for something which was not worth marks. But that same type of student will show up to pretty much every class, even if that’s not worth marks. Despite being very interactive, the way they earn marks in my “lecture”-based courses is still very traditional and they have their recipes for success in that system. And the optional learning experiences, no matter how helpful, often get pushed to the side.

      SBG shakes the whole thing up to the point where the student has to step back, ask themselves how they are going to show mastery for a certain topic/standard, and put in the work to do it. And this will be despite the fact that you are not offering any actual marks for them to do the actual work which will be allowing them to develop this mastery. I hope I learn some lessons when I finally implement SBG (which will be in an upper-year course) that I can take back to my intro courses so that I can feel comfortable eliminating more things which are still currently worth participation marks.

      In a way the cards result in more student accountability for answering questions since you can easily spot who has and who hasn’t answered the question. With clickers (the ones I’m using anyway) you just get a number of votes and if it is less than you like you can stomp around encouraging more people to vote on that question.

  4. Hey ya’ll,
    Let’s not forget that clicker use is supposed to be for “us” the teachers. We gauge understanding and adjust – right?

    I’m not trying to be preachy with this – I got the tweet about this post right as I am trying myself to decide how best to use clicker-like activity. (I actually use polleverywhere or Socrative so students don’t have to buy clickers.) I was pondering the reasons to give points or not to give points and whether or not I want to track understanding and record answers, etc. Your post helped me think about this – but right now, I really am trying to maintain a feedback view in terms of my teaching. So in that sense, to point or not to point, isn’t really the question. Or am I thinking about this slightly off?

    • And FYI – my classes are on the order of 300 – which makes the use different than for a class of 30 – although I also teach a class of 8 this semester. no clickers for me there – just in your face forced questions/discussion.

    • Joss Ives says:

      I think what Brian says below is the best way to look at it. It may be best to offer some participation points while you develop your own skills in using a clicker-like pedagogy, and develop your ability to sell it to the students as something useful.

  5. bwfrank says:

    I think, for an instructor who is new to running discussions among and with students in lecture, it’s pretty much fine to use points for “clicking”, espceially as a safety net. There’s a lot going on when changing to using this kind of instruction–technology, “selling” it to your students, picking good questions, situating those questions with lecture, listening to students, running the discussion to elicit more ideas, and just doing it smoothly so it’s natural and engaging. I think this safety net can buffer some of the faux-pas that are bound to happen. Ultimately, I think the direction an instructor should likely head is away from points for clicking, but I think there are far worse things one can do.

    • Joss Ives says:

      Very well put Brian. I completely agree. I’m about to start my fourth term of teaching with clickers and I have hit the point that I feel comfortable doing away with point for clicking.

  6. Ian says:

    Amen!! Death to external motivators!

  7. I understand clickers for large lectures, but I’ve never gotten the point of them in a class of 10. Could you explain why you feel them useful in a class small enough that you can see all the students’ faces and ask them questions personally?

    • Joss Ives says:

      A great question, so I wrote a new post to discuss it. The short version is
      – With clickers I feel that I can engage every student
      – Clickers help me create a safer learning environment for my students
      – Clickers are a very familiar pedagogical technique for me
      – Clickers allow me to record student understanding (for long-term use)

  8. bretbenesh says:

    Hi Joss,

    I just listened to Science Geek Girl’s podcast about clickers. At the 9:19 mark, they say that recent research says giving points makes the students more passive (and consequently learn less). Unfortunately, they did not cite a specific source.

  9. […] But I took a big step towards clarity last week because of a post by my friend @jossives, “So long clicker participation points“, and a comment by @brianwfrank I think, for an instructor who is new to running discussions […]

  10. Cynthia Heiner says:

    Hi Joss, I just had this conversation for the 100th time again today. I’m VERY curious to see if you see a drop in participation (my gut says you won’t).

    • Joss Ives says:

      Hi Cynthia. My gut also says that I won’t see a drop in participation. There is a possible confounding factor: even if I see no drop it might be that my improving salesmanship will cancel out the drop in participation due to the lack of clicker points.

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