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Do Clickers Make a Difference in the College Classroom? (Guest Blogger - October 2011)

  I had never heard of clickers before I arrived at the University of Michigan four years ago from the University of Minnesota where I had taught for 19 years.  I immediately saw that I could use these electronic response systems in the quantitative methods courses that I typically teach. 


After observing a demonstration of the use of clickers, I decided to give them  a try in my quantitative methods course. I managed to get resources from my department to  purchase not only the equipment and software that an instructor needs to use clickers but also a set of 30 clickers that the class could use. One complaint made by students about the use of clickers is that they are required to purchase the clickers which cost between $30-$40 (Zhu, 2007). By eliminating this potential downside of clickers I hoped that students would be more receptive to clicker use.


I used the technology in a couple of different ways in the course. First, clickers were used to evaluate whether during the lecture students were comprehending the material that was just presented. It is important for an instructor to be able to gauge in real time whether students are understanding the concepts presented in lecture in order to decide whether elaboration on a particular concept is necessary. This is especially true in quantitative methods courses where new topics typically build on earlier concepts. So if a student does not understand earlier concepts, it is likely they will have trouble comprehending  new material based on those concepts.

The second manner in which the clickers were used was in evaluating group presentations.

At the end of the course student groups were required to present the findings of a statistical analysis of data that they performed during the semester. After each group presentation, students not in the group used clickers to rate each group’s presentation based on a series evaluation questions. One benefit of clicker technology is that individual student ratings are easily aggregated by the clicker software on the instructors computer.

 

Many students responded that they enjoyed the use of clickers and that it helped them assess their understanding of the material. While clickers are particularly useful in large classrooms ( Patry, 2009) where it is difficult to engage students in active learning, the course I teach typically has only 25 students and so this is not a problem. For example, in addition to clickers I typically use think - pair - share learning strategies to actively involve students in learning the course material and assessing whether students are assimilating the material. However, clickers was a useful addition to think-pair-share. Students enjoyed “mixing things up” as well as the fact that the software enable me to keep a record of student responses to all the clicker multiple choice questions asked during the lecture so that I could do additional post-lecture reflection on how well students were grasping the material and whether in the future adjustments to the lecture were necessary.

The use of clickers was not all positive, however, one typical complaint of students and professors about clicker use is the technical difficulties that arise during the lecture (Zhu, 2007). Unfortunately, I did run into technical difficulties on more than one occasion, especially during the first semester that I used clickers. However, as my experience with clickers grew these computer glitches became less frequent.

Overall, in my opinion,  clickers can be a useful teaching tool that have the potential to improve learning in the classroom. However, in order to successfully add clickers to a course it is important that an instructor learn the technology thoroughly and adjust the lecture content appropriately in order to maximize the potential for increased student learning. While the overall findings on whether clickers improve student learning are mixed (MacArthur and Jones, 2008), it is unclear how much of these mixed findings are due to variation in how well this technology is implemented in the classroom.

References

MacArthur, J. and L. Jones (2008). “A review of literature reports of clickers applicable to college chemistry classrooms.” Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 9: 187-195.


Patry, M. (2009). “Clickers in large classes: From student perceptions towards an understanding of best practices.” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 3(2). http://www.georgiasouthern.edu/ijsot

 

Zhu, E (2007), “Teaching with Clickers.” CLRT Occasional Paper No. 22, University of Michigan.

 

Brian McCall is a professor of education in the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, a professor of economics in the College of Literature, Sciences and Arts and a professor of public policy in the Gerald R. School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. He received his Ph.D. in Economics from Princeton University. His current teaching is in the quantitative methods area while his research interests include the effect of financial aid and tuition on college enrollment and completion and the impact of high school curriculum on college success. He is an associate editor of Economics of Education Review and publishes the blog “Brian McCall’s Economics of Education Blog” at mccalleconeduc.blogspot.com.

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Tags: classroom technology, clickers

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Comment by Yvonne Hynson on December 19, 2011 at 14:45

Thanks!  Just sent an email to Yong and hopefully will have a play in the new year.

Happy New Year to you too.

Comment by Hazel Owen on December 19, 2011 at 14:37

Hi Yvonne. I just happen to know that TPA have at least one set of clickers sitting in a cupboard (or there certainly were 2 1/2 years ago. Last I heard, Yong was looking after them, and they rarely get used, so you might be able to borrow them long term.... :-) Happy Christmas.

Comment by Yvonne Hynson on December 19, 2011 at 13:57

Love to know the cost involved for New Zealanders and if there is any discount for 25 ???

Comment by Hazel Owen on October 25, 2011 at 12:04

Really appreciate your blog post. Clickers are definitely one of those subjects that can evoke quite extreme responses, and I have heard some podcasts (for example, Clickers in the Classroom; and Transforming Students into Active Learners) and read various papers / posts from both sides (e.g.Don’t put clickers in the same basket as laptops).

 

I guess at the end of the day clickers are like any other tool - they can be used in a 'teacher-centered' way, or one that enhances the learning experience for students - it depends in part on the learning and teaching philosophy of the educator and the resulting design of a session. So, if clickers are used, for example, to help highlight to the students themselves, gaps in their learning...and if students can then be encouraged to help each other to fill those gaps, clickers are surely useful. In turn, the results of the responses, as you mention, can help the educator personalise future sessions to address these gaps.

 

Interesting that you experienced technical issues...it is certainly a common theme, and I have worked with educators who when the clickers are working find them a valuable tool, but when they are not, are not very polite about the technology ;-)

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