Clicker points and mindset

I’m a big fan of peer instruction with clickers and of Carol Dweck’s model of growth and fixed mindset. The streams crossed the other day which can be both revealing (and dangerous.)

If you’re familiar with peer instruction and mindset, skip down to “Clicker points: performance or participation.” If you’re still here, a quick refresher:

(Image: Peter Newbury CC-BY)

(Image: Peter Newbury CC-BY)

Peer instruction is a powerful, evidence-based instructional strategy where the instructor poses a conceptually-challenging multiple-choice question, the students vote using “clickers”, discuss their thinking with their neighbors, vote again (depending on the type of question asked) and then participate in a class-wide discussion.

Carol Dweck’s model of mindset suggests there are two attitudes, or mindsets, we have towards our own ability to learn: fixed and growth. Earlier versions of her model had various terms for what eventually become fixed and growth:

fixed: entity, helpless, performance-oriented

growth: incremental, malleable, mastery-oriented

This infographic by Nigel Holmes gives an excellent description and comparison of fixed and growth:

Our attitudes or “mindset” toward our own learning determines our behavior (and success).
Infographic by Nigel Holmes.

Clicker points: performance or participation

One of the benefits of using clickers to facilitate peer instruction is the hardware and software lets you track who clicked and what they clicked because every i>clicker (that’s what we use at UC San Diego and other audience response systems can do this, too)  has a unique ID. After it’s set up and talking to your learning management system, when a student clicks, you can track it student-by-student and click-by-click.

Why would you want to track it, anyway?

The short answer is, so students can accumulate points that contribute to their course grade. The question is, what do they get points for:  for clicking anything (participation), for getting the questions correct (performance), or a combination?

It is generally recommended that students receive PARTICIPATION points for peer instruction questions. Assigning points for PERFORMANCE, that is, getting the questions correct, has been shown to hinder conversations (here’s an example in Physics) because students worry about “getting it right” rather than recognizing what they know/believe about the concept. Plus, many good peer instruction questions have more than one correct answer and the goal is getting students to talk about one of the choices.

Here’s where I see growth and fixed mindset coming in. Some of your students will already have a growth mindset about the concepts you’re teaching

Yes, I can learn this is. It might not be easy but I can do it.

Some of your student will have a fixed mindset about your course

I’m not good at this stuff. This course is going to hard.

And some of your students will have no mindset about your course. They’ve never even heard of transpolymerization or intersectionality or traxoline, let alone whether or not they think they can learn it.


Because of the success a growth mindset can bring, I say we do everything we can to spark and foster a growth mindset in our students and make them confident they can learn. And that confidence is fragile: it only takes being shut down by your professor once for asking a question in class to never ask another question in class. It only takes one hurtful comment on an essay to never stray beyond 5 paragraphs again. It only takes once getting the clicker questions wrong and receiving nothing to sit next to Mr. Smarty-pants next time and just do what he does.

Fostering a growth mindset is hard but you can do it* by how you create a supportive learning environment in class, how you respect all your students, how you show your appreciation for every contribution a student makes to class,  and how you reward your students for participating in peer instruction.

*Oooo, growth mindset about growth mindset!

How many performance points?

The i>clicker software has a 2 options for giving participation points:

Option 1: students receive 1 point per class if they answer almost all of the questions (“almost all” is good practice because you don’t want a student to get zero if they happen to miss clicking once during the class.) You specify the “almost all” threshold in the i>clicker settings.

Option 2: students receive 1 point every time they click.

Personally, I like Option 2 because on really busy days where students vote and revote on several peer instruction questions, they’re rewarded with a lot of points, compared to the slower days where they only had to answer 1 peer instruction question.

If you’re going to give points, you need to build it into the syllabus — it’s got to be worth something. I’ve seen instructors assign as little as 2% for peer instruction (too low, in my opinion) and as high as 20% when participation in the clicker-driven class discussion was really important. If you’re not sure, 5-10% is a good range, but call it “class participation” rather than “clicker points” to give yourself some flexibility to do other collaborative activities in class, too.

There will be times when a student does not click: he was sick that day; she didn’t click before you closed the poll; his clicker batteries died halfway through class; she left her clicker at home. You don’t want these students swarming you at the end of class. So build a “get out of jail free” clause into your syllabus, with a policy like this:

To receive full marks on this component of the class, you only need to participate 80% [you set this threshold in your syllabus] of the time. That is, you can miss an occasional click and still receive full marks.

At the end of the course, you’ll have to do a little calculation to figure out their clicker scores but that’s a small price to pay for removing all the stress and anxiety students might feel.


Support a growth mindset in your students with participation points for peer instruction to reward them for practicing thinking in expert-like ways. There are plenty of other components of the course to assess their performance. Let peer instruction be about practice, formative feedback, and their realization they CAN do this, after all.

Posted in peer instruction | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Teaching in Higher Ed Podcast #053: Peer Instruction

Last week, I did something really cool: Bonni Stachowiak interviewed me about peer instruction for her Teaching in Higher Ed podcast. I was a bit nervous about talking on the phone, knowing I would be recorded, but Bonni is so knowledgeable and friendly, it turned into a great conversation between colleagues.

Visit Podcast #053 to listen to the podcast and read Bonni’s podcast notes full of resources.

How People Learn

Early in the interview, Bonni asked about one of my blog posts where I quote How People Learn about the characteristics of experts:

  1. experts have a deep foundation of factual knowledge
  2. experts understand those facts and concepts in a conceptual framework
  3. experts organize the knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application

Here’s how I picture that conceptual framework:





It’s not enough just to teach the factual knowledge: you also have to help students build the conceptual framework and give them practice retrieving and applying the facts and concepts:

Factual knowledge

Factual knowledge

Conceptual framework

Conceptual framework



As Bonni and I discussed in the rest of the interview, peer instruction is a powerful and versatile tool for giving your students opportunities to practice thinking like experts.

Great graphics, too

Bonni pulled out a bunch of quotations and turned them into great graphics. Here are a couple of my favorites. (Thanks, Bonni, for sharing these with me!)

(Graphic by Bonni Stachowiak, Teaching in Higher Ed. Used with permission.)

(Graphic by Bonni Stachowiak, Teaching in Higher Ed. Used with permission.)

(Graphic created by Bonni Stachowiak.

(Graphic by Bonni Stachowiak, Teaching in Higher Ed. Used with permission.)

(Graphic by Bonni Stachowiak, Teaching in Higher Ed. Used with permission.)

(Graphic by Bonni Stachowiak, Teaching in Higher Ed. Used with permission.)

Posted in How People Learn, peer instruction | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Align your NSF DUE grant proposal with these 11 landmark works

I spent April 24, 2015, in two half-day presentations led by David R. Brown in the Division of Undergraduate Education at the National Science Foundation.  Special thanks to my colleague Stacey Bridges for organizing these events.

The first presentation, Dave outlined how the NSF supports innovation in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) education. It was a blizzard of acronyms which Dave patiently translated for us, always with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. One slide, for example, was about


At that stage, it was all traxoline to me.

To summarize what happened in the presentation: the NSF is a complicated organization that funds billions of dollars of research ($7.2 billion this year) including research in undergraduate STEM education.

If you’re looking for a grant to study undergraduate STEM education, you should find your way to the IUSE grants (the evolution of STEP, TUES, and WIDER grants), deep within the NSF:

Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE)
grant from the
Division for Undergraduate Education (DUE)
in the
Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR)
at the
National Science Foundation (NSF)

Writing a Successful DUE Proposal

The afternoon session with Dave was full of advice for writing successful education grant proposals. He had three key messages:

First, the best professional development you can get to help you write successful grants is volunteer to be a grant reviewer.

Second, and I’ll quote Dave:

In order to maximize potential for award, follow the Program Solicitation and Grant Proposal Guide (GPG) with highest fidelity (or face RWR: return without review.)

Third, every grant writer should read and align their proposal with these 11 landmark works.

1. PCAST Report: Engage to Excel

PCAST_ReportThe President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) forecasts “a need for producing, over the next decade, approximately 1 million more college graduates in STEM fields” and makes 5 recommendations for reaching this goal:

  1. catalyze widespread adoption of empirically validated teaching practices;
  2. advocate and provide support for replacing standard laboratory courses with discovery-based research courses;
  3. launch a national experiment in post secondary mathematics education to address the mathematics preparation gap;
  4. encourage partnerships among stakeholders to diversify pathways to STEM careers; and
  5. create a Presidential Council on STEM Education with leadership from the academic and business communities to provide strategic leadership for transformative and sustainable change in STEM undergraduate education.

Source: look for full report plus an executive summary by finding the 2012 “Undergraduate STEM Education Report” at the PCAST Documents and Reports.

2. CoSTEM 5-Year Strategic Plan

CoSTEM_ReportIn May, 2013, the Committee on STEM Education (CoSTEM) within the National Science and Technology Council released, “Federal Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education 5-Year Strategic Plan.” The report recommends 5 areas for STEM Education investment:

  1. Improve STEM instruction.
  2. Increase and sustain youth and public engagement in STEM.
  3. Enhance the STEM experience of undergraduates.
  4. Better serve groups historically underrepresented in STEM.
  5. Design graduate education for tomorrow’s STEM workforce.

Source: Look for the full Federal STEM Strategic Plan at the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

 3. DBER Report

DBER_ReportIn 2012, the National Research Council published the Discipline-Based Education Research (DBER) Report. It describes how each of the STEM disciplines can address 3 key issues:

  1. Student-centered learning strategies can enhance learning more than traditional lectures.
  2. Students have incorrect understandings about fundamental concepts.
  3. Students are challenged by important aspect of the domain that can seem easy or obvious to experts.

Source: download a copy of the DBER Report or read it online through the National Academies Press.

ReachingStudents4. Reaching Students by Nancy Kober (2015)

Dave calls this a “Follow-up to DBER Report for Practitioners” and a “How-to guide for DBER”. At the CIRTL Forum in April 2015, Myles Boylan, Lead Program Director at the NSF DUE, highlighted this report, too.

Source: download a copy of Reaching Students or read it online through the National Academies Press.

5. “The Similarities Between Research in Education and Research in the Hard Sciences” by Carl Wieman

Carl Wieman is a Nobel-prize winning physicist who’s spend the last decade researching how undergraduates learn and how to train instructors to design and teach active classes using evidence-based practices. The Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia is a fantastic resources for teaching and learning in higher education. (Full disclosure – I spent 5 years working at UBC in the CWSEI before going to the University of California, San Diego. That experience continues to be the foundation of my work.) Carl also spent time in the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the organization responsible for the PCAST Report.

Source: Wieman, C. (2014). The Similarities Between Research in Education and Research in the Hard Sciences. Educational Researcher 43 (1), pp. 12-14. doi: 10.3102/0013189X13520294

6. “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics” by Freeman et al.

(A) In active classes, students’ grades increased by about 0.5 standard deviations — about half a grade. (B) Far fewer students fail in active classes. (Source: Freeman et al. 2014)

This landmark paper by Freeman et al. describes a meta-analysis of 225 published studies that measured student performance in traditional lecture vs. active learning classrooms. The evidence is overwhelming that active classes are more effective. As the authors put it, if this was a medical study where students in active classrooms were given an experimental treatment with the traditional, lecture-based classrooms as the control, they’d stop the study and give everybody the experimental treatment. Wired blogger Aatish Bhatia wrote a great summary of the paper and Carl Wieman published a short commentary.

Source: Freeman, S., Eddy, S.L., Miles McDonough, M., Smith, M.K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M.P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. PNAS 2014 111 (23) 8410-8415. doi:10.1073/pnas.1319030111

7. Describing & Measuring Undergraduate STEM Teaching Practices (2013)

The book is the result of a AAAS/NSF meeting that drew participants from nearly 50 institutions to identify tools and techniques that can be used in describing teaching practices. It discusses five techniques that individuals or organizations can use to measure STEM teaching: faculty and student surveys, interviews, classroom observations and teaching portfolios. The best descriptions of STEM teaching typically involve the use of multiple techniques, the book concludes. (source)

Source: You can get a PDF from the meeting website (follow the “Describing and Measuring Teaching Practices” link)

8. Project Evaluation

ProjectEval2002_cover This “User-Friendly Handbook” covers

  • Evaluation and Types of Evaluations
  • Steps in the Evaluation Process
  • An Overview of Quantitative and Qualitative Data Collection Methods
  • Strategies That Address Culturally Responsive Evaluation

Source: Section by section PDFs and a PDF of the entire 2002 document are available here. There’s a 2010 edition (PDF), too, but Dave didn’t mention it.

9. Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University

The PCAST report, recall, calls for 1 million more college graduates in STEM fields. Not 1 million more faculty, researchers, graduate students, and postdocs but on undergraduates who will graduate and then do what? Join the workforce. The NSF is interested in funding projects that help these undergraduates prepare for those careers. These 2 reports from the Center for Education of the Workforce are resources for education researchers less familiar with life outside the ivory towers of academia.

Career and Technical Education: Five Ways That Pay Along the Way to the B.A. stem_CEWGeorgetown_cover

Source: Five Ways That Pay Along the Way to the B.A. by A.P. Carnevale, T. Jayasundera, & A.R. Hanson (2012). STEM by Anthony P. Carnevale, Nicole Smith, and Michelle Melton (2011).

10. Community Colleges in the Evolving STEM Landscape

CommunityCollegeEvolving_coverRemember, the PCAST calls for an additional 1 million college graduates, not university graduates. Those of us in R1 institutions can’t forget that the teaching and learning research we carry out (ideally, with NSF support) has to be applicable to teaching and learning in 2- and 4-year colleges, too. What does that mean? How are colleges different than universities? Are there any differences in the students? These questions and more are addressed in this report prepared by Steve Olson and Jay B. Labov.

Source: Like the DBER report, this report is published by the National Academies Press and is available online in HTML and PDF.

11. Common Guidelines for Education Research and Development (2013)

CommonGuidelines_IESNSF_cover(Not to be  confused with NSF  Grant Proposal Guide (GPG). These guidelines were developed by the representatives from the Institute of Educational Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education and from the NSF. As Dave puts it, it offers guidance on building the evidence base in STEM learning, including

  • guidelines intended to improve the quality, coherence, and pace of knowledge development in STEM education
  • guidance intended for program officers, prospective grantees, and peer reviewers
  • it is not intended to be prescriptive or exhaustive

For various types of research and development, from those contributing core knowledge to those assessing implementation of interventions, the Common Guidelines describe the

  • Purpose
  • Empirical and theoretical justifications (evidence base)
  • Types of project outcomes (evidence generation)
  • Quality of evidence

Source: A PDF is available from the NSF. Here’s a FAQ about the Common Guidelines.

Remember, the goal is to align your proposal with these works (or at the very least, don’t contradict them.) Dave recommends putting them all on a USB stick and keeping them handy when writing (or reviewing) NSF DUE proposals. And once more, Dave reminds us, follow the Grant Proposal Guide (GPG) “with highest fidelity.”

Good luck with your grant proposal!

Posted in research | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment