Faculty Example: Engaging Students in an Introductory Physics Class

Interview with Dr. Marcello Pavan, TRIUMF Academic Engagement coordinator and sessional lecturer at the Physics and Astronomy Department, The University of British Columbia

How did you use a iClickers in your course and what made you decide to do this?

When I began teaching Physics 100 the previous course instructors had already been using iClickers in the classroom. I had attended seminars where Carl Wieman talked about their use, so I was happy to use them as well. One year we tried Eric Mazur’s Learning Catalytics system instead of iClickers, but found it too unwieldy so we went back.

We very much like the way iClickers help us to get the class engaged. Breaking up the lecturing with an in-class activity really helps to keep the class focused and interested.

What has been your experience so far?

We very much like the way iClickers help us to get the class engaged. Breaking up the lecturing with an in-class activity really helps to keep the class focused and interested. It’s not perfect! but it really helps. As well, they are great for checking if most students are “getting it”, and if not, it provides a perfect segue into a class discussion. From our year-end evaluations it appears the students appreciate the iClickers in our class as well.

What are some challenges/successes in using iClickers in your practice?

The iClickers we use are limited to one of five responses, and in many case it would be nice if it had more flexibility, like handling questions with more than one answer. It makes coming up with suitable questions a challenge, since the options cannot be too straightforward or too opaque, with distractors that are not too easy to spot, or else students can guess the answer by process of elimination. The system so far has been robust enough, though this year there were hiccups, which really throws the class off since we rely so much on them. Over time we have come up with a pretty good set of questions, and I am continually amazed how many of the questions have the same response distributions year after year!

What is your advice for new users to iClickers?

Definitely take the time ahead of the course to craft your questions. Ask other lecturers, consult textbooks (e.g. Mazur and Reddish’s books have excellent example questions for physics), try them out on some grad students, etc. It’s more challenging that it appears on the surface. Tell the students they have 1/2 or 1 or whatever minutes in advance and stick to it. Oh, and do try to avoid making the right answer ‘C” too often – I discovered that tended to do that. Moreover, when most of the students get the answer right, the response distribution on the screen looks like a giant middle finger, pointed at me!