Using Student Responders Responsibly

Having spent the better part of the past few years tinkering with technology and assessment, I’ve done a bunch of experimenting with—and writing about—student response systems lately.  I believe that they just might be the key to seeing teachers make real instructional decisions based on data, which is the key to quality formative assessment. 

The biggest risk that I see for schools that incorporate student responders into their assessment practices is a subsequent over-reliance on low-level multiple choice questions to gain information about student mastery.  The way I figure, our kids have enough multiple choice in their lives already!

These are exactly the kinds of concerns that I shared in my recent Digitally Speaking column for ASCD’s Educational Leadership—and they are the kinds of concerns that one of my readers from Tennessee emailed me about yesterday. 

She wrote:

I can visualize using student responders for science and math, but will be one of those teachers who need "strategies for asking open-ended questions with responders."  Very few questions I ask in my classes can be answered with a "click." 

Would you might sending me some examples of the open-ended questions you use in your classes? 

Being a language arts/social studies teacher, I can certainly understand how student responders don’t seem all that useful for promoting higher level thinking at first glance!  But if you choose to use responders to ask Likert-scale-style questions, the results can be informative to teachers AND challenging to students.

Here’s a concrete example:  The BBC (Britain’s news service) recently decided to allow the leader of a racist political party to appear on a political news show.  The general public was outraged.  In fact, hundreds of people protested against the BBC’s decision in the streets outside the studio.

Knowing that the ways that governments deal with issues of justice and injustice is a part of my required curriculum, I decided to introduce this current event to my students.  We read this “kid-friendly” version of the story in class and wrestled with whether or not people with controversial views deserve the right to speak publicly on news programs broadcast across entire nations. 

If I had our school’s responders—which I didn’t because we only have two sets in the building—-I would have started my lesson with a simple open-ended question that students would have answered with responders:  How important is freedom of speech?

My students would have had 5 “position statements” to choose from that looked something like this:

    1. I believe no one should have freedom of speech.  The government should be able to control speech to make sure no one is ever offended by the words of another because offensive words can end up leading to wars.
    2. I believe that freedom of speech should be carefully monitored and that a list of what is okay to say and what isn’t okay to say should be developed and enforced.
    3. I’m not sure how I feel about freedom of speech.  I like having freedom, but can see how it can go wrong.
    4. I believe freedom of speech should be a right in almost every situation.  To limit ideas is horrible.  That being said, I don’t think people should have the right to lie or offend others.
    5. Freedom of speech is the most important freedom that we have and that it should NEVER be limited, regardless of circumstances.

After we’d gathered and reviewed our initial thoughts with responders, I’d have students share their stance on each position statement.  I might even have students join together with peers who voted the same way to polish their thoughts and then join together with peers who had different positions, providing the opportunity for thinking to be challenged. 

Then, we’d read the article together—just as I did in my lesson without responders!  We’d note that the British people didn’t appreciate the speech of this political leader or the decision of the BBC to give an audience to someone pushing hate.  Finally, we’d review the BBC’s position on the protests, which emphasized that protecting freedom of speech was more important than keeping an audience happy. 

Finally, I’d have students vote on our initial question again to see if any of their opinions changed.  Whenever I take second votes in activities like these, I force children to make a choice by eliminating the third position statement.  Doing so challenges all children to engage with the controversial issue that we’re studying.

Inevitably, there is lots of “movement” between the first and second votes that we take on controversial topics—and movement becomes a source of great conversations.  I ask individual students to share the evidence or ideas that forced them to change their minds.  Then, I ask students whose opinions remained the same to try and convince our class that they’ve been right all along.  

Now don’t get me wrong:  You DON’T need student response systems to pull activities like these off. 

I’ve had the same kinds of powerful conversations in my classroom without any technology.  But the kinds of instant visual evidence of ideas and opinions provided by responders is helpful to me as a teacher—allowing me to tailor my approach to the upcoming conversation and to “measure” ambiguous standards in my curriculum—and motivating to my students, who always want to know how their ideas stack up against those of their peers. 

More importantly, these are the kinds of activities that teachers who DO HAVE sets of student responders MUST integrate into their instruction.  Without an active focus on increasing the quality of questioning with student response systems, schools will inevitably end up with really expensive, overly-simple multiple choice nightmares. 

The best news is that these kinds of activities are possible in any subject area.  Language arts teachers could have students reflect on the decisions of a character in a novel that they are reading.  Science teachers can have students think through the responsibility that nations have for cutting greenhouse gasses and tackling global warming.

In math, students could argue on behalf of different strategies for solving the same problem.  Art classes could debate the value of different styles of painting or the work of a particular artist.  Students in health and/or physical education can decide whose is responsible for the healthy living habits of today’s teens. 

I guess what I’m trying to say is that any question that is "likert-able" is also "student responder-able." 

Does this make sense? 

10 thoughts on “Using Student Responders Responsibly

  1. Knaus

    Take a look at the Activexpression from Promethean. I’m lucky enough to have a set on trial in my classroom.
    The nice thing about this model is that they allow text answering. You can have students enter a few sentences using the clicker.
    However, I’m not seeing the huge need for this. Perhaps I need more time to explore and pull them into my curriculum.

  2. mratzel

    I agree with your hesitation about clickers being used with low level questions. I don’t agree that asking low level questions is always a bad thing.
    I use clickers with low level questions and I feel like it one of the best tools in my arsenal. Here’s why.
    Although I ask those kinds of questions, it is the instructional setting that differentiates the student experience. Immediately students know if they were able to perform the math process correctly. Immediately I know what processes I need to reteach and I do it right there and right then. We talk about what worked, they learn to analyze their mistakes and they learn to trust. They learn to trust that if they can’t work the problem correctly, they need to ask questions in specific ways. They grow in their understanding of themselves as mathematicians.
    The last step that I utilize is to have them write reflections of each question they miss. Right there when they figure out what they did incorrectly. These are probably the most empowering things that math students can learn…they realize it is their education and their learning. They take it back from me and they begin to own it.
    What they score is way more than a number…it helps them build towards knowing they are capable of getting every problem correctly. I see the clickers are at the root of this learning system and make it all possible. Beyond that, I think it is the power of the clicker software that enables me to download multiple formatives into one spreadsheet that gives me a powerful snapshot of what they know, where we still have weaknesses and where we are strong.
    I would also argue that I can use clickers with very open-ended story problems. Just because they might take multiple pathways to find the single correct answer doesn’t mean that they had to utilize low level thinking to get there. They still had to interpret the problem, perform data extraction and multi-steps to come up with “the answer”.
    Obviously I have this perspective because I use the clickers for math. I’d probably be more in line with your thinking if I was talking about using them with my science students. But I thought I’d offer this rebuttal that low level answers can be empowering for a multitude of reasons.

  3. Matt Guthrie

    As a teacher who is concerned about the dumbing down of curriculum and how most of our current use of technology fosters that, these are refreshing ideas. I will definitely share them with my colleagues.

  4. Bill Ferriter

    Geez, Guys, y’all are brilliant! Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts on and strategies for using responders here.
    I’m going to convert your comments into a second blog post for the middle of next week. Should be a good read for Radical Nation!
    Rock right on,

  5. Damian

    As a former English/humanities teacher myself, Bill, you pretty much explained how I used to use the SRS framework in my classes – as conversation starters, not as ends unto themselves.
    I’ll just add two quick bits: another interesting exercise you can do is to use the feedback in sort of a data analysis exercise. In addition to discussing whatever topic is at hand, it’s often also interesting to ask students to consider why they think the results came out the way they did – what is it about US as a group that made the results skew this way or that, and do we think these results are representative of the student body as a whole, or the state, country, etc. I think Kevin is correct in that you’re never going to have enough options to reflect every student’s specific opinion, but you could always ask student either to a) refrain & explain, as he suggested, or b) choose the option that most closely fits their opinion, and then ask them to elaborate upon what they agreed and disagreed with about the statement.
    As far as cost goes, rather than use an SRS system, I used a service called, which allows users to create polls for people to vote in via text message, a la American Idol. Results are updated in realtime; if you’re lucky enough to have a projector and screen, the kids can watch the bar graphs change as the votes roll in.
    This may not be as feasible in the elementary or middle levels, but my high school juniors & seniors all had cell phones, many with unlimited texting packages, and were usually only too happy to take them out & use them in class.
    I know not every high school student has a cell phone or unlimited texting, but if many do, those are minor issues that are easily overcome with a little creativity. As is true of any tool, it may not be entirely appropriate for every group, so your mileage may vary.

  6. Kevin Karplus

    One problem with forced-choice questions is that often none of the answers is quite right. In the example here, there was no way for a students to say that free speech is different from rate-payer-subsidized news organizations providing platforms for people to disseminate hatred, which may have been the real issue. Political polls almost always have this sort of built-in bias, where the assumptions of the poll taker are so heavily built into the questions that no reasonable selection can be made by someone who does not agree with the assumptions.
    A good discussion leads to uncovering the assumptions of the participants, but the multiple-choice format does not seem to lead to this, unless students are encouraged to refuse to answer, if they explain why none of the answers is quite right.

  7. Paul Cancellieri

    I completely agree with Nancy, in that the real utility comes from the data and how a teacher uses it. I think that far too many teachers are using student responders now like game show remotes. They ask simple recall questions, and show the data to the entire class. I like the idea of storing that data, disaggregated by student, so that I can track student learning. I can adjust my instruction, report to parents, and even customize activities to the needs of individual students. Technology should help us do new things, not just do old things faster.

  8. Nancy Blair

    I agree there is real danger that teachers will use clickers for low-level, concrete questions, but I already see that happening now in too many classrooms (even without clickers). We have a real issue in classrooms with the quality of questions asked. In other words, this problem already exists.
    In addition to the Likert-like questions, it is also possible to structure multiple choice questions that require inference, application, analysis, etc. by asking students to decide upon the “best” choice or most likely outcome from the scenario posed in the question stem. An example I encountered on a social studies test years ago asked, “Which quotation below best reflects the political beliefs of the speaker?” Quotations from four U.S. presidents where listed as the choices.
    For me, the power of “clickers” is the instant access to information which enables teachers to constantly adjust instruction so students gain deeper understanding of the topic. It allows one to know whether a few students don’t “get it” and many need additional attention or whether most student don’t “get it.”
    Real learning doesn’t come from using clickers; it comes from what you (the teacher) can DO with the information gleaned through clicker use. Facilitation of discussion can be guided by real information reflected through student responses rather than just pressing through the topic. Certainly the information can be gained in other ways, but clickers make the information immediately available, thus immediately actionable. They provide exceptional opportunities to differentiate based on student needs–instantly.
    Clickers also address the issue of engagement (or at least participation). When using clickers, you also always know who is attending to instruction and participating. I interviewed a group of students using clickers. They were able to express how much more attentive they were to instruction because they KNEW the teacher would know whether or not they responded. In many classes, the teacher will ask for a show of hands or verbal response and many students don’t do anything (and the teacher doesn’t even seem to notice whether or not everyone responded).
    When used thoughtfully, clickers have real potential to change instruction.

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