Communication skills development in large lecture using notecards

What is the strategy?

During the semester, notecards were used to foster student engagement in several ways.  In general, five strategies were used: (1) Randomly calling students and asking questions (about 20 cards drawn per class), (2) assigning students to bring questions to the following class meeting (this method was used about three times during the semester, names were randomly drawn before class and the list displayed on the overhead), (3) giving students the option to be asked a question or to ask the professor a question during the current lecture (this depended on the lecture topic and the level of discourse in the class session; this strategy was mixed with the first method of randomly calling students), (4) during peer discussions, students were told to discuss lecture content or solve problems with their peers (these discussions would take about 5 min. from initiation to students reporting out); the student whose card was drawn was the reporter who explained the small group dialogue (typically 3 cards were drawn, to hear report-outs from 3 groups), and (5) using a similar strategy as 4, except the peer discussion was centered on the class solving iclicker questions from chapter study guides.

How do these tasks fit into my class?  How long will they take?

Cards were sorted during class in two piles: responders & non-responders.  After class, to score the student participation, cards were marked with checks if the student attempted to respond, and an upside-down A if the student did not attend or would not attempt to respond.  The date was written next to the upside-down A if the student was not in class, for recording purposes.  If a student’s answer was wrong, or if the student was unable to answer the question, the instructor would ask an easier question, or frequently ask the student to discuss the instructor’s question with the student’s peers seated nearby in class and then answer later (lecture would continue, the card would be set aside, and the student would raise their hand when ready), or be given the opportunity to ask the instructor a question if they needed help understanding a concept (students learned to say, instead of answering a question: “can I ask you a question?”). 

The goals of this questioning strategy were to: (1) prompt understanding of the content, (2) identify and clarify student misconceptions, (3) identify where students are confused with the newly introduced concepts, (4) challenge the students to solve problems (this strategy was coupled with the use of iclickers), (5) reinforce prior knowledge (e.g., from prior lectures in the course), (6) explore students’ initial thoughts about the topic, (7) help clearly explain the lecture content, (8) further student discussion, or (9) encourage teamwork by having students collaboratively solve problems. 

How should I grade these problems?  Should I grade these problems?

Please see the language that I included in my syllabus:

This class has 8 participation points, that’s a lot of points!  Please note:

Earning your 4 notecard participation points:

Each student will create a notecard that includes a little bit about the student, their thoughts about signing up to take XXX class, and what they might want to do after college.  This information will help the instructor place students in study groups during class and also to suggest recommended study groups outside of class.  These cards will also be marked, and randomly used, to document each student’s participation, asking of questions, and similar participation activities during lecture.  Students who are always attending will score very high and students who make a strong effort to participate will receive all four points.   Students who are frequently absent will receive fewer points. 

Which pitfalls do I need to avoid?

This is an ongoing area of research for me, and my colleague XXX.  We designed a questionnaire to analyze student views about using the notecards and surveyed nearly every student completing the course, in the Fall of 2013.  Students responded to two open-ended questions for part of the survey:


  • What did you like the most about the use of notecards in this class?
  • What did you like least about the use of notecards in this class?

Our key for coding the data is on the next page.  It represents major and minor themes in the survey responses to the two questions.  This key is the result of analyzing 147 student surveys, and was created with Melissa’s guidance and the assistance of several undergraduate research assistants.  At this point, we have used the key to code all 147 surveys and we are beginning to make sense of these results.

Here are some preliminary thoughts about our analysis:

Our important response is that not all students enjoyed using notecards, and that some students felt “put on the spot.” (So I’m thinking a lot about how to best use them in the course.)  However, putting students “on the spot” isn’t all bad: it also seems to be an important method of helping students overcome public speaking anxiety.

Other important results include: (1) the students reported feeling the notecards increased the level of attention paid to the lecture, (2) the notecards increased attendance, and (3) the notecards substantially improved engagement in class.