Rethinking Instruction … Again

One of my favorite things about teaching is that I never feel like I’ve figured out how to do it well. There’s always something new to try, or something old to tweak, or something tried and true to throw out because as it turns out, the students don’t need it any more. All of this means that I’m never bored, and that I’ve never taught the same session twice.

Of course, this also means that I’m always a little uncertain about what I’m doing, how effective it was, and how meaningful it was. So far, no assessment I’ve done has completely set these nagging uncertainties to rest.

But uncertainties notwithstanding, I’m going to try something new this fall. When and where appropriate, I’m going to combine the idea of the Knowledge Survey* with classroom clickers.

I’ve been hearing about clickers for years and have experience their effectiveness myself. Quite against my own will, and in spite of feeling that I was participating in something as corny as any of those team building exercises I always hated (like falling backwards and getting caught), I found myself being sucked in and engaged in the activity at hand. If that could happen to me against my will, maybe I can use it to sucker some nearly sleeping freshmen into my sessions with a couple of well-placed participatory activities.

Still, my innate aversion to gimmicky things kept me from getting too excited until after I heard about Knowledge Surveys. Those things are amazing! Students get an accurate assessment of their own abilities (the Macalester Geology department has found incredibly high correlations between the responses on knowledge surveys and the students’ actual abilities), but I get a quick way to assess students, and I get a less-gimmicky way of encouraging participation and curiosity.

Now, if I could only get the stupid clickers to work, that’d be a great first step. So far, they hang at the “sending” notification whenever I test them, and never make it through to the actual recording of a response. I’ll have to get someone to help me figure out if they’re actually not working or if I’ve set something up wrong.

* I’ve heard Karl Wirth speak about these surveys three times, now, and ever time I came away thinking that there’s got to be a way to incorporate these things into my teaching somehow. Here’s a paper he and Dexter Perkins wrote on the topic.