Instructor Insights

Clickers or Flashcards?

In this section, Jeff Gore discusses his decision to use flashcards instead of clickers in the course.

"With clickers, I have to use a computer to visualize students’ responses, but flashcards allow me to quickly read the room and see response trends."
—Jeff Gore

I really enjoy using concept questions in class. My interest in using concept questions grew out work I did with the National Academy of Sciences and the Board on Science Education. My task, while I was there, was to read and help summarize the literature on science education research at the undergraduate level, which is very relevant to how I spend some of my time at MIT. I read many studies, including those by Eric Mazur and his colleagues about peer instruction and peer learning. Clickers are very, very popular in that field, and this has influenced my own teaching. As a result, I use clickers when teaching undergraduates in another one of my courses. But I don’t think clickers are the only way to get this kind of interaction with students.

In fact, I attended a teacher workshop, co-sponsored by the American Association of Physics Teachers and the American Physical Society, during which Nobel Laureate and science educator Carl Wieman shared his experience teaching 1,000 students in an introductory course using response flashcards. At first, I was very skeptical about using flashcards. But then I grew fond of them. In 8.591J Systems Biology, we don’t use clickers for concept questions; instead, we use flashcards printed in different colors that correspond to different answer choices. With clickers, I have to use a computer to visualize students’ responses, but flashcards allow me to quickly read the room and see response trends.

In class, we follow the recommendations of educators like Wieman and Mazur and ask multiple choice concept questions every 20 minutes or so. We give students about 30 seconds to think about the question, and then they “vote” by holding up their flashcards. If the majority of students answer correctly, I don’t have students pair off and discuss their responses, but if more than 1/3 of the students are confused, I have students discuss their answers before calling for a re-vote.

When I first taught 8.591J Systems Biology, the graduate teaching assistants and I spent a few hundred dollars making the flashcards. But the number of cards has slowly been deteriorating over time! We spent some time looking online for vendors who sell pre-made concept question flashcards, but didn’t find anything. This is the kind of thing that I wish existed, because the time required to make the flashcards probably prevents educators from trying active learning strategies like concept questions. Nobody wants to spend a few hours of their limited time making flashcards! In fact, I wish MIT would offer faculty flashcards en masse. They’re just so much cheaper than clickers.

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