Monday, December 29, 2014

Plickers: Student Response System for a One-Device Classroom

I remember the day the principal brought me my set of SMART Response clickers.  At that time, I wasn't a huge SMARTboard enthusiast, so I mostly mocked the clickers.  Until I tried them.  I had been circulating in my room while we did practice problems for years and felt I had a pretty good take on who understood what, but as soon as I passed out the clickers, I somehow upped the ante.  Though I used them anonymously back then, the students felt extra pressure to answer correctly.  They wanted to be right when they submitted their answers.  Now I have tried out a lot of student response systems, but I really couldn't get my head around this one until I tried it.  Once I did, it was super-easy and really fun.  A Plicker is a Paper Clicker.  A nice, low-cost, simple solution for a classroom without much technology.   Or even with a ton of technology. One device it all it takes.

The Set-Up:  I went to and created my free account.  Then I created 5 classes for the high school classes I teach.  I added my students by first name and last initial.  All very simple!  Then I printed out the plickers from here.  Each of my students would receive a unique paper clicker that I assigned with a number in my account.  I copied them onto heavy cardstock and made 6 sets, one for each class and one class set that will live in the room for when students don't have one.  

The Try-Out:  I ask a question with a multiple choice answer and give the students the choices.  I did this verbally, but you could use a worksheet or notes page with the choices if you want to plan it all out ahead of time.  Students hold the plicker in one of its four directions to indicate which answer they think is correct.  I scan the plickers.  The iPad shows who has been scanned and how they answered.  I can also see at a glance how many students have the correct answer.  You can create questions ahead of time or on-the-fly.  With some practice, I could easily scan the entire room from one spot.

In the picture at the left, I have scanned 21 of my 22 students in the class - only Gabe L has not been scanned.  Notice the names on the screenshot; they pop up as they are scanned and their names turn blue in the boxes at the top of the screen.  I can also see how they answer.

The Drill-Down:  After my lesson, I can look at the data.  Green squares show correct answers; red show wrong answers.  I can see which students chose each answer in case I need to target specific remediations.  Again, very simple and intuitive.  In the screenshot at the left, I can see which answer every student chose.  I can also see how many picked each choice and that 70% had the answer correct.

The Weigh-In:  My students thought the plickers were fun to use.  I had a SMART Response task lined up for them before vacation and it wasn't working, so one of my students suggested we use plickers instead.  Everyone reached in their binders and pulled them out and we were back to reviewing for the test.  I love the simplicity of this tool and the ease of data collection.  Of all the student response systems I have tried, it was easiest to set up and use with a big pay-off in the data it provides, so I am adding it to my apps page.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Small Change in a Cookbook Lab

Science teachers sometimes refer to "cookbook labs," labs where the prescribed procedure should be carefully followed and the end result easily predicted.  These labs have their place - with a set procedure, it's easier to ensure student safety and desired outcomes and they provide needed practice of a recently learned skill.  Unfortunately, though, sometimes students are so busy blindly following directions that they don't give much thought to what they are doing or why.  This often reveals itself in the work they do after the lab.  In an attempt to keep a set procedure, but increase the student understanding, I made a small change to a cookbook lab that my students did this month.

My typical cookbook lab goes like this: Measure out a small amount of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and add some acid to create salt, water, and carbon dioxide.  Boil away the water to leave the salt behind.  After the lab, write a balanced equation and calculate how much salt should have been made.  Then determine the percent error in the real product and explain how their mistakes contributed to the percent error.

My re-do went like this:  Ask the students to write the balanced equation and calculate how much sodium bicarbonate they would need to use in order to make 2.5 g of salt.  My hope was that this would focus them on the task and get them thinking about what they were about to do.  Instead of asking them after the lab how much salt they should have done, I took a recipe approach - if you want to make this much product, how much reactant do you need?  The procedure for the lab remained the same, but I hoped that there would be a different level of thinking during the lab because they completed the calculations before. 

So how did it go?  The lab itself took longer because students needed to complete the calculations before starting the lab.  With only 48 minutes to go over homework, complete these calculations and do the lab, we were really pressed for time.  The payoff, though, was in the work that came after.  The average grade on this lab was 5% higher over the two previous years' versions of the lab.  Does that mean the students understood it better?  Maybe.  It also could mean that they helped each other with the pre-lab calculations and that improved scores.  Where I really noticed the main difference - though this is completely an anecdotal observation - was in what they wrote in their error statements.  I ask students to explain their percent error.  If the product they made weighs too much, what else is in the dish?  If the product mass is too low, where did the product go?  Students often struggle with this task, but most of the error statements in this madeover lab were focused and logical.  This makes me wonder if they did understand the task better.  I am not sure, but I know I want to try this strategy again during second semester to keep thinking about it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Predicting Products, Part 2

Now that the students have learned how to predict products, it's time to put the skills to the test in the lab.  Since this skill is about looking at the ingredients and predicting how they will interact, this is a great time for a Choose Your Own Adventure lab, a lab where the students design their own procedures.

We start with this premise:  Remember those logic puzzles that you did the day before vacation in elementary school that started with something like "Seven ladies live in 7 different colored houses with 7 different pets?"  This is going to be the lab version of that.  There are 5 beakers, labeled A, B, C, D, and E with 5 solutions that are AgNO3, BaCl2, CuCl2, K2CO3, and NaOH.  Figure out which solution is in which beaker.  The only things you can use to solve the puzzle are these 5 solutions.

With that, they move into the lab and start making a plan.  Eventually, they get the solutions and start mixing them together.  I have suggested they use a spot plate for this, but I haven't made many other suggestions.  They keep track of their data in different ways - some make tables, some make lists.

There is this great quiet buzz in the lab as they work; the conversations are awesome.  They have to know how to predict the products of a double displacement reaction because they have to predict the products of reactions between every combination of the above compoundsThey have to know how to read and interpret a solubility table because they have to predict the identity of the precipitates.  They work together.  They explain their reasoning to each other.  For some, their understanding of this reaction type deepens.  Others realize that they don't understand the work which ups the ante for them to dig in.

I have told them that their grades on their lab reports are entirely independent of whether or not they identify the solutions correctly.  But they don't care.  They want to be right because they want to be right, not because they are getting a grade.  They want to solve the puzzle.  When kids finish quickly, they ask if they are right.  Many leave class saying things like, "I really liked that lab" or, even better, "That lab was fun."  It doesn't get any better than this. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Predicting Products, Part 1

How are you feeling about single displacement?
One of the hardest things I teach kids in a year is to predict the products of a chemical reaction.  It's not that it's such a difficult skill at face value but it does require students to synthesize several other skills they have learned so far:  They have to classify a reaction, determine if it occurs, write the correct formulas for the products, and balance the equation.  There are many places for things to go awry in those steps.

 When I teach a math problem, I can usually get almost all the way around my room to see how everyone is progressing because they take long enough to solve.  Predicting products is quicker, though, and I need a way to gather and review feedback quickly.  For this I use The Answer Pad.

The Answer Pad is a web tool - part student response system and part answer sheet - that has a free and a premium version.  The free version is very generous and allows teachers to push out response screens to students and see their responses in real time.  There are screens for multiple choice, true/false, yes/no, thumbs up/down, a slider, a fill-in, and 10 free templates that include a blank canvas, a graph, maps and more.  There is also an iOS app, TAPit (where TAP stands for The Answer Pad), but the tool can be used with iOS devices or any web-enabled devices.  What I like about using the app is that students can write with their fingers which is great for showing a math problem or predicting products.

When we predict products, I use the app in "Go Interactive" mode that allows teachers to just use interactive response screens to meet on-the-spot needs.  After I model how to predict the products of one type of reaction, I send the students the blank canvas and ask them to predict the products of another.  Then, as they submit their answers, I can see what they predicted in real time.  Then I know if we need another example or if we are ready to move on to another type.  I can still circulate - because I am looking at the results on my iPad - but when I don't make it all the way around the room, I can still see everyone's guesses.  At the end of each type, I can ask for a "thumbs up" or a "thumbs down" about how the students are feeling about the process (special note to The Answer Pad:  my students want a sideways thumb option).  As you can see from the pictures here, it is really easy to see at a glance how everyone is progressing.

I have written about ClassKick, an iOS app that I like for seeing student work as they create it.  There are some similarities between ClassKick and The Answer Pad, but they really are very different.  With both, teachers can see student work to give quick feedback.  With ClassKick , students can progress through examples at their own pace; that isn't possible with The Answer Pad.  I like ClassKick for more involved work, like math problems, but I like The Answer Pad better for quick feedback.  The Answer Pad will work on an web-enabled device, but ClassKick is an iOS app, so you would need an iOS device to use it.  ClassKick allows students to ask for help and help each other - I love that - and you can't do that in The Answer Pad.

There is another way to use The Answer Pad - as a bubble sheet for tests and quizzes.  I'll write more about this at some point this year, but kids can tap or click the answers on the bubble sheet and The Answer Pad grades the work and provides complete item analysis.  If you're looking for a way to start using some technology in your classes to get quick feedback, check out The Answer Pad .

Monday, December 1, 2014

Hour of Code

December 8-14 is Computer Science Education Week.  In conjuction with this week, educators are encouraged to design activities to allow students to create one Hour of Code.  Never tried any coding?  No problem.  There are many resources available for use at

Last year I jumped on the Hour of Code bandwagon as soon as I learned about it.  When I signed up, I really had no idea what I would do with my students or how to do any coding myself.  My superintendent and I actually joked about how when we were in middle school we both had the experience of running the three-line program that made our names repeat forever on a computer screen.  Still, with this limited experience, I wanted to try it, so I figured I would get an iPad app and ask my students to do something chemistry related in one of those.

Then I read one of the many excellent posts by Amy Gruen on her blog, Square Root of Negative One Teach Math (we share a first name and a knack for ridiculously long blog titles!).  She was raving about her experiences teaching students to program graphing calculators.  Eureka!  What a terrific idea!  Like their mobile devices, graphing calculators are carried by almost all my students and their power for learning is under-utilized.  I decided I would teach then how to program their graphing calculators.

I remembered that a previous edition of my textbook Modern Chemistry included a section on how to program your calculator for chemistry.  I tried to simple programs - how to calculate protons, neutrons, and electrons and how to calculate polarity of a bond.  Then I borrowed a crazy-looking device (I told my students it was retro) that sits on top of an overhead projector and links to a graphing calculator so students can see exactly what I type.

I demoed one program.  As I was typing, I explained what each step did for the program.  The kids followed along and created this program with me.  Then I told them they could create another program of their choosing for extra credit, as long as it could be used in chemistry for something useful.  At first, they moaned - they didn't have enough experience, they weren't programmers.  Then they got started and the results were amazing.

Many students wrote programs to solve for density or percent error.  Several tried other things too -- molar mass, stoichiometry.  Some got carried away and created program after program after program.  One of my best students created a program that used matrices to balance any equation! 

One student, who had been a solid worker but just slightly above average, told me she wanted to write something different; she didn't want to do what everyone else did.  I suggested that she start with density, but then make her program tell me if something would sink or float in water.  She started working while I mingled.  One of my best students was struggling to get his program to work correctly and we were troubleshooting.  All of a sudden, the denisty programmer jumped up and screamed - actually screamed - "I did it!"  My top student turned to her and asked for her help on his and she beamed.

I can't say for sure that it was the Hour of Code that turned things around for her, but she became one of my strongest students - almost unstoppable - by second semester.  Some students, though, did sign up for programming because they had tried it in chemistry.  Hopefully, everyone saw that programming isn't too hard for them or beyond their reach.  There were so many payoffs for the Hour of Code I did last year, that I am anxious to try it again this year.  If you can squeeze in an hour-long coding lesson, please do.  It will be a great day and may be the start of something big. 

Nearpod CyberMonday Offer

I wrote about Nearpod, one of my favorite webtools, earlier this year.  To celebrate the season of cyber-deals, Nearpod is offering a couple of deals today.  Nearpod offers a free account that gives users some basic tools.  By upgrading to a Gold account, users get more tools and more storage.  This week you can get a Nearpod Gold account for 39% off the regular price or around $7 per month.  In addition, you can buy web content at 40% off in the web store.  If you're looking for an easy web tool at an affordable price, Nearpod has a great bargain this week and is easy to use as a presentation platform and student response system.