If you ask students from a typical freshman chemistry class what they think about formal charges, you are likely to be rebuffed by eye rolling and groans. Why, then, were 5.111 (Principles of Chemical Science) freshman chemistry students in graduate student Daniel Banks' recitation huddled together studying this concept with the urgency of generals planning a nighttime assault? The answer is that Banks' recitation section made it into the fall 2014 5.111 Clicker Championship, and was about to compete with seven other recitations to win it all. Suspecting that formal charges would be part of that final competition, Banks' group was getting ready.
For those who haven’t stepped foot in a classroom in a number of years, clickers are electronic-response devices, roughly the size of credit cards, that enable students to answer questions in class by pressing a button, and that record and display student answers. Pioneered at MIT in freshman physics, 5.111 faculty have been using clickers since 2007.
Rudy Mitchell of the MIT Teaching and Learning Laboratory, who has been studying the use of clickers in 5.111, found that initially, students were not that happy with the introduction of the technology. Although 73 percent of students reported learning gains as a result of clicker usage, only 55 percent liked them. Knowing MIT students enjoy a little friendly competition, Professor Cathy Drennan came up with the idea of clicker competitions. Each week, students compete as approximately 25-student recitation “teams,” and the winning group earns snacks during their next recitation.
At the end of the semester, the recitation groups with the most wins compete for a special prize: a one-of-a-kind T-shirt designed by a classmate, and the bragging rights to call themselves the 5.111 Clicker Champs. In recent years, the number of freshman chemistry students reporting learning gains due to clicker usage increased from 73 to 86 percent and the number agreeing that they enjoyed clickers rose from 55 to 74 percent.
This year, the one-of-a-kind T-shirt, designed by mechanical engineering major Maria Rosa Ruiz, displayed an electron being excited by 5.111 joules of energy. After all, everyone was getting excited by chemistry, and the champions were the most excited when they found out that they had mastered general chemistry. In the end, graduate student Sanjay Prakadan’s recitation won the big prize. While Daniel Banks' missed out, at least his students did fantastically well on the final exam!