Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Low-tech student response system

A while back, our district department chair handed out an article from Science entitled "Farewell, Lecture?" by Eric Mazur.  In the article, Mazur's method of "peer instruction" is briefly described.  I was keen on implementing peer instruction in my classes, but I was worried about not having access to a digital student response system.    In the article's bibliography, an article titled "Clickers or Flashcards?  Is There Really a Difference?" by Nathaniel Lasry was cited, so I read that, and learned that Lasry found no difference in the effectiveness of using flashcards compared to using clickers.  After reading Lasry’s article, I felt confident that having no access to student response system technology would not hamper my ability to implement peer instruction.  Here's a basic flow chart of how peer instruction works that I adapted from Lasry's article in case you aren't familiar with the concept:

If you'd like a more detailed explanation of peer instruction, see the book section "Peer Instruction: Making Science Engaging" on the Mazur Group website.

So, I came up with a flashcard system that is simple, but that works really well!  I require my students to have a composition notebook with them in class every day for science. At the beginning of the semester, I give each student a 6-1/2” x 3-5/8” envelope to glue into their science notebook on the back inside cover. If you don't use science notebooks in your classroom, students could easily tape or glue the envelope into a folder or whatever they bring to science class every day.  Inside this envelope, I have them place a stapled pack of construction paper cards

of six different colors (green, red, yellow, blue, orange, and purple). I cut the cards out of 9” x 12” construction paper into 6” x 3” size cards which fit perfectly into the envelope and are easy to cut on a paper cutter. On one side of the construction paper cards, I will have the students write the following:
  •  Green: A | True | Yes
  •  Red: B | False | No
  •  Yellow: C | Maybe | It depends
  •  Blue: D
  •  Orange: E
  •  Purple: F

I specifically choose green to represent true/yes, red to represent false/no and yellow to represent maybe/it depends for obvious reasons, but the other colors are just what happen to be available in our school supply. Writing letters A-F on the cards is only done to mitigate color-blindness for any students with that issue.
For concept test questions that I plan ahead, I have developed a series of PowerPoint slide templates

into which I can quickly enter questions and answers. One issue with digital projectors is that the colors projected often look different than on a computer screen, so some trial and error is required to determine which digital color best matches the construction paper colors.  Also, what looks blue on your computer screen might not look blue on the projector!

Sometimes, I come up with an impromptu concept test question that I want to be able to quickly ask of the students. In this case, I have created a device  to use in conjunction with my magnetic whiteboard to quickly facilitate creating a multiple choice question.

You could use this if you don't have access to a digital projector.  I took one card of each color and taped them on top of a long piece of adding machine paper at even intervals that would fit into the size of my classroom whiteboard and then laminated it.  If I were to make a new one, I think I'd use posterboard to laminate it on instead of using adding machine tape and I wouldn't forget to write the corresponding letters onto the colored cards - oops...

After it was laminated, I taped a couple high-strength magnets to the back of the top card. 

When the device is not in use, I can attach it to the unused end of my whiteboard. When I need the device, it is easy to move it to the middle of my whiteboard and quickly write as many answers as I need to (up to six) on the whiteboard.

Whenever I pull up a PowerPoint or use the manual device to ask a a question, my students just automatically pull out their flashcards and away we go.  They really enjoy using them and arguing their cases with each other - good stuff!  "Blues talk to yellows - figure out who's right!"

Obviously, you can't store data/results with flashcards and they're not the latest and greatest in technology, but if you want your students to argue with each other about science and you've got a small budget, I have had a lot of success with this system.

So, there you go - the low-tech, low-cost student response system!  Please feel free to comment if you have questions or suggestions for improvement...


  1. Thanks for the comment you posted on my peer instruction post at

    with a link back here. There are lots of people using coloured A-E flashcards but I've never seen or heard of anyone who made the magnetic cards-on-a-strip. That's ingenious! I'll definitely be telling my colleagues so thanks for sharing.


  2. Interesting. I used fingers to vote on solutions. If you want to archive the results, you could take a picture of the class holding their color cards.

    The real issue is INDEXING those results, in order to compile them (e.g. to plot a student's progression). Such indexing is made easier by using clicker, and would require more advanced technology from picture logs (not necessarily face recognition, but maybe numbers printed on each answer sheet).

  3. @Peter - Thanks for the comment! It does work really well for impromptu formative assessment.

    @jyby - Even if I did use digital clickers on a regular basis, I don't know that I would index the results since it's formative assessment. I feel that the real benefit of peer instruction is to get the students talking to each other about the topic at hand. I poll the students usually at least twice on each question, and sometimes three times (which would skew data-taking) - my goal is to see where they're at as a group and help them work through misconceptions and misunderstandings. Even using digital technology to plot students' progression seems kind of time-consuming to especially when discussing multiple topics. However, I haven't tried it, so maybe it's easier than I think! :)

  4. Thanks for the tips; I might use something like this in my statistics course next semester.