Sunday, March 08, 2009

Using clickers in the university classroom

Recently "clickers"--a remote control-like personal response system universities are adopting in droves--have (quite literally) made the news. NPR ran a story on them, and The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription only) provided an analysis of clicker economics and a critique of their use. (If you don't have a Chronicle subscription, Margaret Soltan of University Diaries provides the article in its entirety.)

So: Clickers--good or evil? That seems to be the question everyone is asking, and in many ways it's an annoying question. On the one hand, I think it's important to ask if clickers are useful in the first place. On the other hand, since they are being widely adopted, it's clear many faculty do find them useful in one way or another. The question then becomes, at least for teaching consultants like myself, "How can we ensure clickers are being used in a way that's pedagogically sound?" In particular, how might clickers improve students' experience in large-enrollment courses?

Near the end of the Chronicle article, Michael Bugeja writes,


I am still wary of clickers, and I asked professors in my unit if they were using them.

Jay Newell, who teaches advertising, consulted with his student advisory committee about using clickers in his large class. The students were against clickers, he observed: "One said that she and her friends would slow down lectures by inputting incorrect answers to poll questions. Another said that it was not unusual to have one student bring multiple clickers as a favor to friends in classes in which clicker responses were used to award credit."

I was intrigued that Newell had consulted with students and had created an advisory committee, an idea recommended by the same center for excellence in learning and teaching whose e-mail message triggered this essay.

And that's the moral of the story. Institutions have much to learn from students about the cost and effectiveness of technology. Chief information officers need to be consulted before departments invest in expensive for-profit consumer technologies. Professors need to realize that technology comes at a price, even when advertised as "free." Finally, administrators need to double their efforts at cost containment, demanding assessment before investment, especially in schemes that bypass mandated accountability standards.


Laura Blankenship (AKA Geeky Mom, whom I seem to be citing a lot these days) has a post about the importance of cost-benefit analysis in adopting new technologies to support teaching and learning.

I agree with both Bugeja and Blankenship: all parties at a university--students, faculty, IT folks, teaching centers, and administrators--must collaborate in selecting the best technologies for students. Too frequently, this isn't the case.

The best practices, it seems to me, for adopting clickers at a university include*:


  • Having academic technology services (or IT or whatever department is in charge of these things at your institution) set up classroom pilots of clicker systems from several different vendors.

  • Selecting from among these many vendors the clicker system that is most flexible, is platform agnostic (e.g. works on both Macs and PCs), and is inexpensive for students. This clicker system, and only this clicker system, would then be made available through the campus bookstore.

  • Working with vendors to provide students with the best possible deal. In the best-case scenario, students would pay once for a clicker that they could use throughout their college years, and then sell it back (assuming the technology is still current) at similar buyback rates for textbooks (best case scenario: the bookstore pays 50% of the clicker's original cost to buy it back from the student). Students would not pay per-class or per-term for clicker service; there would only be the one-time purchase cost.

  • Avoiding costly installation of clicker technology in classrooms. Instead, select a system that allows instructors to carry around a small box-type receiver that can be plugged into their laptops and easily receive feedback from student clickers, even if the clickers aren't in a direct line of sight from the box.

  • Ensuring that faculty in adjacent classrooms could use clickers without interfering with one another's sessions. Clicker systems should be multichannel. If memory serves, the system at my university offers 13 simultaneous channels in a concentrated area.

  • Training faculty on the systems prior to the start of the academic term, and having quick-response teams of academic technology experts who could be in a classroom within three minutes. Again, this is the goal of classroom technology support folks at my university, and it's larger than 5,000 acres, so I don't want to hear any complaining from people on 300-acre campuses. :)

  • Coordinating with the campus teaching center and any other relevant campus units (e.g. the student disabilities center) to ensure the best possible learning outcomes for clickers. This means not just holding workshops--which faculty tend to be loath to attend, in my opinion--but finding out from the bookstore who has ordered clicker systems and then working proactively with those faculty to ensure they are implementing clickers in a meaningful way.



Which begs the question: Is there a meaningful way to use clickers?

I'm no booster for clickers, particularly when I suspect they're being used as a substitute for true student engagement and interaction. Yet in very large enrollment classes--of more than 100 students, say--clickers can provide instructors with a way of gauging what students are learning.

For example, say an instructor asks a question of a large class and provides three possible answers (A, B, and C). She then asks students to raise their hands if they believe A is the correct answer, then B, then C. Inevitably, large numbers of students aren't raising their hands because they either aren't paying attention or, more likely in my experience, they worry about embarrassing themselves by raising their hands for an incorrect answer. With clickers, students can answer these questions confidentially. Faculty might then more accurately determine what proportion of a class is not understanding what's going on.

Since clicker systems have an option to identify individual students to the instructor, instructors could ask students to "log in" to their clickers for such an exercise. This would encourage even higher participation--particularly if a portion of the course grade was based on participation, which is not usually the case in large lecture courses. In my opinion, it's not wise to grade student responses to on-the-fly questions like the example given in the previous paragraph, but recording individual student responses would help faculty and teaching assistants identify students who regularly respond with incorrect answers and target them for additional, small-group assistance.

I have also heard of professors asking students to individually punch in an answer--A, B, C, D, or E, for example--then confer with their fellow students before answering the question a second time. Such a practice encourages students to help one another and reinforces student learning by having students justify their answers, explain how they arrived at their answers, and possibly even teach one another a concept. It also may reinforce for the faculty member the importance of giving students time to engage with and learn from one another.

I'm not sure those who have written about clickers recently have considered the promise of this technology in very large enrollment classes. For example, Margaret Soltan dismisses them with this comment:


Once again we take note of the way an alliance of commercial interests and slothful professors creates a shitty, expensive education for American students.


Certainly there are many instances--and probably even a majority of them--where clickers are not implemented thoughtfully. That's why it's important that the best practices I outline above are followed.

I also agree wholeheartedly with Historiann's assessment:


I can’t help thinking that all of the problems teachers may experience with not knowing if students are getting anything out of lectures could be solved by the old-fashioned technology used by top-notch prep schools and liberal arts colleges throughout history: classes small enough (say, up to 40) where professors know the students’ names and can gauge student interest and throw out provocative questions to keep student attention.


Amen. The real solution to the problem of large-enrollment courses would be to stop the factory farming of undergraduates. At my university we now have science courses of more than 900 students. That's not just insane; it's criminal. However, as a staff member of a teaching center, I can make my displeasure with that system known, and I can help interested faculty undertake research on the learning outcomes of large-enrollment classes versus seminars, but in the end the juggernaut of the university will bowl over those of us who try to stand in its way. After all, large classes give faculty more time for research (although I've found that adjuncts teach these large introductory classes much of the time, and adjuncts typically aren't required to undertake research), and large classes are very cost-effective, as they require only one faculty member and a small army of poorly paid TAs or readers rather than a very large department of more highly paid professors ready to meet with students in more intimate settings.

Until the day when large universities collapse under their own weight and those of us who care can say "I told you so," we're stuck with improvising solutions. And I think, used thoughtfully, that clickers provide some small hope of improving students' motivation and ability to learn.

*I owe a debt of gratitude to my local clicker guru, Robert Ralston of the University of California, Davis, who has spent years figuring out how these systems work, and who has reminded me of their benefits and liabilities on many an occasion.

4 comments:

emmakb said...

Hey Leslie

I work primarily as educator in a museum and last year we were given an experience with a type of 'voting / multichoice' clicker you're talking about. I'm not aware of NZ universities using them - this guy was advocating their use in everday classroom situations though.
I'm not a big fan of these either - for the same reasons you've stated. Some fancy number-crunching of answers at the end of a lecture could justify the lecture - 'oh yes - 78% got the answer right, I must've given a good lecture'. It doesn't cover interest levels, engagement with the subject, the lecturer or other students at all. It's also faceless (unless students are asked to punch in their code first). It is trickier but asking people to put their hands up, voice an opinion/answer/question - something visual and or verbal, ensures ownwership of the knowledge, 'putting their money where their mouth is'.
If you want to have your students to engage with you and other students then it put the onus on you to be engaging in the first place. I think purely using the clickers would take this onus away - droning teaching at students would be allowed to continue.
I could see the clickers working better under this use:
'I have also heard of professors asking students to individually punch in an answer--A, B, C, D, or E, for example--then confer with their fellow students before answering the question a second time.'
This allows for students to give their answer/opinion but more importantly it requires engagement with each other AND the acceptance that you're allowed to change your mind once you have new facts on board. This is how we teach primary school students at the museum - seems quite effective. Means that students learn that teachers are only part of a resource, they don't know everything :-)

Derek Bruff said...

Great summary of some recent discussions about clickers. I'll second your recommendations to have tech support available for in-class support with very little notice. That level of support makes it much more likely that instructors won't be turned off from using clickers by technical problems, many of which are easy to fix with the right bit of information.

Also, I like the idea of finding out from the bookstore who's ordering clickers and providing some proactive pedagogical support. I've found that many instructors figure out one or two useful things to do with clickers and then stick with those uses. A little bit of continuing inspiration can help instructors keep innovating.

The peer instruction technique you describe is pretty much the standard use of clickers in college and university settings. Clickers provide a very useful tool for gauging student understanding, but they're perhaps even more useful in engaging students in small-group and classwide discussions. Asking clicker questions motivates all students in a class to think about a question and commit to an answers, which sets them up well to contribute to discussions.

And while clickers work very well in large classes, where there are few options for assessing and engaging students, they also work well in smaller class (20 to 40 students). When I ask a verbal question of students in a small class, I'm only going to be able to hear from a few students. Posing the same question as a clicker question (a) allows me to find out all of my students' perspectives on the question and (b) prompts them all to think about the question independently--before they find out what their peers or instructor thinks. These benefits are evident even in small classes.

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Anonymous said...

I'm interested in trying out clickers since my university provides them to faculty and I love technology! But, since I'm doing a literature class, I am not sure how I can integrate clickers in a meaningful way. I could poll the students about the reading, but then what? I'm afraid I'd have to write a bunch of slides where I offered opinions that they could only (dis)agree with and that doesn't seem too productive. There are no true/false, right/wrong answers in our reading assignments...All of the examples I've found online of profs using clickers tend to be in other disciplines (social sciences, sciences, math, etc.)--in which concepts, problem sets, facts, and so on are being taught. I mean, if I have the students read a novel, their ultimate assignment is to write a paper about it, not to answer factual questions like "what year was Jane Austen born?"
Thanks for any feedback you & your readers can offer!!