Peer instruction with ABCD voting cards

Center for Teaching Development 2013-03-16

Students learn better and retain knowledge longer when they are engaged and actively processing the concepts in class. Peer instruction is an excellent option for creating a student-centered learning environment. In a typical episode of peer instruction,

  1. the instructor poses a conceptually-challenging, multiple-choice question,
  2. students think about the question on their own and select an answer,
  3. the instructor reacts, based on the distribution of votes. A common practice is to ask the students to turn to “turn to your neighbor and convince them you’re right.”
  4. after a discussion, the students vote again, hopefully with a majority of students choosing the correct answer(s)
  5. the instructor confirms the answer and carries on with the lesson

Classroom response systems, typically referred to as “clickers”, are commonly used to collect and tally the votes. Here at the University of California, San Diego, many instructors who use peer instruction use i>clicker clickers:

Another option is to use voting cards:

ABCD voting card. Click image to download a PDF created by the Center for Astronomy Education at the University of Arizona.

[Update 4 March 2013]: Here’s a 5-page PDF of the ABCDE voting card that works with smartphones. Just email this PDF to the students, who open the PDF attachment and scroll through to the document to the page of their choice. When they hold up their phones, especially in a darkened lecture hall, the instructor should be able to see the colors.

There are advantages to using colored cards:

  • inexpensive
  • no risk of technical failure
  • no one “forgets their clicker at home” – generous instructors have a stockpile of voting cards to hand out as needed

…and disadvantages

  • less accountability as their is no way to record who did (or didn’t) vote, other than the instructor noticing who is (and isn’t) holding up a card
  • the exact distribution of votes is not displayed (though instructors who use colored cards say they quickly learn to estimate the distribution)
  • “card fade”: without a record of who voted and who receives participation points, students may stop participating – it requires a strong presence by the instructor and strong buy-in  by the students to keep up the participation
  • potential loss of anonymity as students can see how others have voted

The folks at the Center for Astronomy Education at the University of Arizona are strong advocates of voting cards (the PDF linked to the image above is distributed by the CAE). They advise instructors using ABCD voting cards to instruct their students to vote by holding the cards tight against chests: the instructor can see the cards but there is still a measure of anonymity.

When using ABCD voting cards, students vote by holding the card tight to their chests. This maintain some level of anonymity. (Image: Peter Newbury)