Resources for writing good clicker questions to promote discussion (links!)

I was recently approached to join a team writing ‘discussion-promoting clicker questions and activities’ for a new microbiology textbook.  It sounded like a fantastic opportunity, so I jumped on it.  Getting in some practice now will undoubtedly make me a better instructor when I land a job.

I did some digging around the internet and found the following links to read through.  I won’t feign that I have any expertise in the field (yet), so I’ll just be posting the links here as a repository for myself and anyone else looking to improve their clicker questions beyond low-level memorization questions.

So, here we go:

“Writing Good Clicker Questions” – from Wisconsin Madison (not much detailed explanation here, but some links to iClicker training videos)
Video:  “Writing Great Clicker Questions for Science Courses” by Matt Evans (see “recorded sessions” on the left)
UW-Milwaukee’s “Getting started” page
“Writing Effective Clicker Questions” from the University of Iowa
A nice guide from the University of Colorado system – “Clicker Resource Guide”
“Writing Great Clicker Questions” by Dr. Stephanie Chasteen find her at @sciencegeekgirl on Twitter
“How can you make a “good” clicker question GREAT?” by Dr. Stephanie Chasteen (again)
“Opening your eyes to new types of clicker questions” by Dr. Stephanie Chasteen (again again)

Lots of good links from the Colorado schools, I hope I can find someone to work with out there!

Did I miss any good information/links? Let me know here or on my Twitter and I’ll continue to update this page.


Guest Lecturing on Microbial Genomics (450 student class)

I have been trying to get more experience with big classes so I volunteered to teach the microbial genomics lecture of the Introductory Microbiology (MMG301) class at MSU.  450 students enrolled in the class and I got my first taste of teaching with Camtasia (something I’ve wanted to learn for a while).  Some students after came up and had some deeper questions about certain topics and several told me that I did well.  Always good to hear!

Just a short post today, off to bury myself in more…microbial genomics!

Sorry that it's blurry, but it helps avoid privacy issues for "my" students.
Sorry that it’s blurry, but it helps avoid privacy issues for “my” students.

Colorado Learning and Teaching with Technology 2014: Apps Aplenty with Mark Gammon (@markgammon)

This session (the final one of the conference for yours truly) was a light-hearted rundown of some fun software useable for teaching, organizing, and just being an overall happier person.  I’ll give the software, a brief description, let you know what it can be used on, and finally give a TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) summary.

  • Coffitivity:

    • The lead-off batter was something called Coffitivity. Are you one of those people who run off to work at a coffee shop or another location abuzz with human-filled white noise?  The folks over at Coffitivity created an app which emulates the coffee-shop audio atmosphere.   If they could convey smell over the internet it would be perfect.
    • Available on: Browsers, iOS, and android
    • TL;DR: Coffee-shop audio backdrop for background noise
    • coffitivity
  • TodaysMeet:

    • Today’s Meet (I’ll add the appropriate apostrophe) is a website that creates a defined backchannel for discussion about a topic/meeting. Many use Twitter/Facebook/Google for such things (including myself), but in the absence of an account you’re out of luck.  TodaysMeet takes under 10 seconds to set up a room, and then you just tell everyone the address and you’re set.  They put in a name and the chat begins.  It’s free and you can set the chat rooms up to last for a few hours to a month (a year if you pay).  Not all that fancy, but quick and easy.
    • Available on: Anything with a web browser.
    • TL;DR: Quick and easy website for backchannel discussions
    • todaysmeet
  • Haiku Deck:

    • Haiku Deck is a PowerPoint alternative/replacement that enables/forces slides to be very visual and very short. You’re limited to 5 lines of text per slide.  For those (grumble, including myself) who love the dreaded “wall of text” – this might be a way to break yourself of the habit. Other bonuses are that your presentations are kept in the cloud and there’s a search for ‘creative commons’ images (and auto-citation of them) so you don’t have to worry about trademark issues.  I’m going to give it a shot, maybe it’ll lessen my text-dependence.
    • Available on: iOS and browser
    • TL;DR: Online PowerPoint alternative to break you of your text dependence
    • haiku
  • Typeform:

    • Typeform allows you to create really slick online surveys. You can put in pictures, videos (really easily from YouTube), and different types of questions and blocks.  It all flows well.  I’m thinking this could be great for quick feedback after class or to try and keep your professor evaluations from being dry.  As people fill it out you can go into the metrics and stats behind what people are answering and how.
    • I made a quick one, feel free to check it out:
    • Works on: Create in your browser, view on anything (I believe)
    • TL;DR:  Create quick, pretty, and fun surveys to distribute online
    • type 1
    • type 2
  • Socrative:

    • A little gift from one of the attendees of the conference. “Socrative is better than clickers” – it lets you create short questionnaires/quizzes and administer them to your class.  It’s complete with some behind-the-scenes stat analysis (as you would expect) and was overall very easy to get rolling.  Your students merely put in your “room code” into the Socrative site and you can freely administer quizzes (from the ones you’ve created) as you wish.  Pretty slick!
    • Works on: Create in your browser, view on anything (I believe)
    • TL;DR: Replace your iClickers with this online app
    • soc 1 soc 2 soc 3
  • Trello:

    • Trello is a project management and collaboration system that I just have come to really enjoy since the conference. I am currently using it to organize a manuscript I’m preparing.  The app/site lets you create separate boards and sections within.  Each section can have multiple cards on them which can represent tasks, ideas, or whatnot.  Finished with a task?  Drag it over to the “completed” section and take a break.  If anyone else has access to that board, they can see that you finished it and give you a pat on the back.  Overall, really nice!
    • Available on: Browsers, iOS, and android
    • TL;DR: Project management system with drag/drop functionality and a collaborative nature
    • trello
  • The odds and ends:

    • Padlet:

      • An odd little app.  It’s a sticky-note wall website thing that I don’t see myself using, but, maybe you’ll find a use for it.
      • Available: Browser
    • Marksta:

      • If you go from your iPhone/iPad camera directly online, this app allows you to quickly add your own watermark/trademark to it, thereby protecting your work
      • Available on: iOS only
    • Storehouse –

      • Storehouse is a visual storytelling app which looks very pretty and could help hook students who might not see the beauty in a subject, which I can’t access because…
      • Available on: iOS only
    • Workflowy:

      • A cloud-based information organization and note taking platform based on expanding bulleted lists. It allows you to hide huge amounts of data in information organization and notes.  Not how I would choose to organize my notes/life, but up to you.  Here’s a link to someone who uses it well:
      • Available on: Browsers, iOS, and android
      • TL;DR: Possible Evernote replacement for text notes
    • Quizlet:

      • An app of my own addition, Quizlet is an online, easily sharable way to make flashcards. If you’ve got a big chunk of vocab you want your students to be familiar with, just toss them into Quizlet and let them run through it at home, on the bus, or (more likely) in the hallway right before class starts.
      • Available on: Browsers, iOS, and android
      • TL;DR: Online/sharable flashcards

DuVall graduate award recipient

In recognition of my contributions to the MSU MMG department (namely during my time running the graduate student workshop and my years as MMG’s recruiting officer), teaching/outreach, and general awesomeness I was chosen to receive the DuVall award from MSU and the DuVall family.

The award itself is quite an honor,  and I’m very glad to receive it.  It isn’t often that scholarships like these are given out for non-science achievements, and to see my extracurricular activities being appreciated is quite rewarding.

So, thanks to the DuVall family, MSU, and my bosses Dr. Reguera and Dr. Kashefi (pictured) for everything.

And a reward for you, my dear readers…a picture of me looking doofy in front of a crowd of MSU friends, colleagues, and faculty:

Teaching lectures at the ASM general meeting? Awesome!


I attended a special talk at the ASM general meeting this morning entitled “NextGenMicrobiologist.”  The talk was primarily concerned with informing future and present instructors on the “next generation” of teaching techniques – which is luckily what I’ve been getting at MSU!  There were a few speakers, the highlight of which was Erica Suchman from Colorado State University.  She did an amazing job and I can see why she’s won all sorts of ASM teaching awards. Her talk was called “Training the Microbiologist of tomorrow:  What them practice what you preach” and here’s a brief summary of what she talked about:

  • Treat your teaching like you treat your research.  You have to read papers, go to meetings, and think experimentally about what you want your outcomes to be whenever you try something new.  If you don’t take this approach you’ll stagnate as a teacher and your classes won’t improve.

  • Technology is “changing the face of education” – an obvious fact but she moved past that quickly.  She realized that in today’s world of constant internet access and BYOD (bring your own device) there’s little need for memorization.  Thus, if your “lectures” are comprised mainly of facts…they’re essentially worthless.  Erica stressed that you have to let go of simply “covering” materials…you have to teach concepts, not facts.  If students understand the foundation they can build upon it easier later.  You don’t want to create a flimsy tower of knowledge that can topple – make something stable that will last.

  • Match your assessments to your teaching style – if you teach facts you must test on facts.  If you teach things that are higher on Bloom’s Taxonomy, then test on that.  She told the audience that she even lets her students make a 1-sheet detail sheet that they can bring to their assessments.  It apparently forces her students to learn what details are important (to put them on the sheet), and then forget about the details and focus on the big picture.  Smart plan!

  • WARNING:  Students are amazing at memorization.  Now, I know this doesn’t sound like a warning, but it is.  Students are good at memorization because it’s what most of them know how to do.  If you want them to do anything besides memorization you have to show them how and make sure they’re succeeding at it.  Give them multiple class periods to work through it and constantly communicate with your students about their work until both parties are happy with what they’re producing. 

  • Backwards design!  That’s about all I’m going to say on that, I’ve covered it elsewhere.

  • She loooooves clicker questions, but warns that HOW you use them is the important part.  Vomiting back what you just told them won’t help – she uses them to force students to apply the current concept to a new situation (much higher Bloom level than memorization).  She also is a fan of group work and claims a ~22% improvement in scores when she does group discussions (peer sounding boards). 

  • Off-topic, but she’s using 3D printed models to study antigens/epitopes so her students can play with the concept instead of trying to abstract it from the start.  I thought it’s a fantastic idea and you can find the models on (apparently).

  • Teach your students to study constantly instead of cramming.  Have things due every week.  Yeah, every week.  Insane, right?  Oh, did I mention that she’s doing this in 100+ student classes?   What she’s done is to create online quizzes with a huge pool of questions (similar concepts, different questions).  Over the course of the semester they take these quizzes which are pulled from the pool of questions.  Each quiz focuses on a certain topic and they can take each up to 10 times– and all will have different questions.  Also, an overall score is provided but it doesn’t tell you which questions you got right/wrong.  Pretty slick – reinforce the same topics until they understand the overall topic instead of individual question.

“Teach smarter, not harder.”
  • Finally, the most impressive thing I learned from her talk:  She does group exams. These groups contain at least 4 members and she has 5 low-pressure (low point) exams over the course of the semester.  Give ‘em data (that she makes up) and make them interpret it.  But, the genius part of this is that they turn in the group exam and then she gives them each a clicker question quiz.  If the group members get >70% of the questions right they get 100% of the group points.  If they get <70% right, they get 70% of the group’s points.  Pretty slick!  Another hint is to allow a “page of dissent” where students who disagree with the group (and got overruled) can say why they disagree with a question and what they think the answer is.  If they’re right, they get the points.  If they’re wrong, they get none of the points.  High risk, high reward!  I was very impressed with the idea and thought it could actually work.

Ten important things I learned about teaching (Part II)

Continued from the last one. I couldn’t have said it better. #6 is far too true for me – I get 10x more nervous when I’m expected to be presenting as someone I’m not (as in every scientific presentation).

The Bug Geek

Continued from last week, here is the rest of my “top ten” list of lessons learned during my first teaching experience.

6. For goodness’ sake, be yourself.

One bit of advice I got before starting this class was that I should dress up – you know, wear a pantsuit or something – to establish an air of authority. I was told that I should embody a stern/serious demeanor to garner respect, especially because I am female and young.


Even if my department was not already quite casual (I love ecologists and their jeans and plaid and polar fleece), I am very much a jeans and t-shirts kind of person. I am also hopelessly goofy, unashamedly nerdy, and definitely inclined to get overly-hand-wavingly excited about certain topics.  I am not an authoritative/dictatorial person. I like to converse, give-and-take, laugh, establish an environment of mutual respect.

Trying to disguise myself…

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