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Clickers and Classroom Dynamics

By Derek Bruff, Vanderbilt University

Classroom response systems create new opportunities for managing student discussions and assessing student learning.

What Are Clickers?

Clickers, or classroom or audience response systems, are instructional technologies that enable teachers to rapidly collect and analyze student responses to questions during class. The following sequence is a typical use of such a system.

1. A teacher poses a multiple-choice question to his or her students via an overhead or computer projector.

2. Each student submits an answer to the question using a handheld transmitter that beams a radio frequency signal to a receiver attached to the teacher’s computer.

3. Software on the teacher’s computer collects the students’ answers and produces a bar chart showing how many students chose each of the answer choices.

4. The teacher makes instructional choices “on the fly” in response to the bar chart by, for example, leading students in a discussion of the merits of each response or asking students to discuss the answer in small groups.

A number of classroom response systems are on the market, and the particular functions of each system vary. See Barber and Njus (2007) for a comparison of some leading vendors.

Teaching with Clickers

Instructors can use clickers for a variety of classroom activities. Straightforward uses include taking attendance and administering in-class quizzes. These methods increase efficiency, but other uses can dramatically change the classroom dynamic.

For instance, clickers can be used for warming up the class prior to a discussion. Asking students to submit their answers to a question individually—without talking about it with their neighbor—allows all students time to think about the question and commit to an answer before a class-wide discussion. Compared with taking the first hand that is raised after a question is asked, this approach sets the stage for greater participation and engagement.

In “peer instruction,” a strategy popularized by Harvard University physics professor Eric Mazur (1997), the teacher poses a question, students answer individually, and the bar chart showing their responses is displayed. If a significant number of students choose the wrong answer, students are asked to discuss the question with those sitting nearby. After a few minutes of discussion, the students submit their answers again. Often, but not always, the students converge on the correct answer as a result of the peer instruction. This technique can lead to a lecture hall buzzing with hundreds of students discussing the topic.

Clickers also enable what is called “contingent teaching” by Draper and Brown (2004) and “agile teaching” by Beatty, Gerace, Leonard, and Dufresne (2006). Since clickers can be used to gauge what students do and do not understand during class, instructors can use the results of clicker questions to change the course of their lessons “on the fly.” If the results show that most students understand a concept, then the instructor moves on. If the results indicate that many students are still confused, then the teacher can spend more time on that topic via lecture, class discussion, or even another clicker question.

Clicker Questions

Many instructors begin using clickers by asking straight-forward, factual questions. These instructors are often happily surprised to hear about other types of clicker questions that do more to engage their students and reveal more about their students learning.

For instance, Mazur asks his students the following conceptual question (which he calls a “ConcepTest.”): “Imagine holding two identical bricks under water. Brick A is just beneath the surface of the water, while brick B is at a greater depth. Is the force needed to hold brick B in place larger than, the same as, or smaller than the force required to hold brick A in place?” Although Mazur could ask a computational question focusing on the same principle, he uses this question to assess his students’ conceptual understanding independent of their computational skills. This is useful because he finds that many students can solve computational problems without developing accurate conceptual understanding.

Clicker questions can also focus on critical thinking skills. For example, professor Mike Dorsher, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, uses clickers in his course on mass media ethics to engage students in discussions of the following ethical dilemma.

In the 1990s, the Unabomber sent a manifesto to the editors of certain large newspapers, demanding that they publish it. If they did not, he said he would continue his mail bombing campaign. Dorsher first uses clickers to have his students vote on the most important values and loyalties involved in the ethical dilemma these editors faced. Then he asks them to determine which of several classical ethical philosophies would be consistent with those values and loyalties. By having his students use the peer technique described above, Dorsher helps them develop critical thinking skills important in the field of ethics.

Questions can also connect abstract theory with students’ personal experiences. In a class on attachment theory, Vanderbilt University professor Robert Innes asks his students, “Have you ever personally followed someone around or conspired to run into them?” and “If you did follow someone or conspire to meet them, did you do that alone or with a close friend?” Innes has his male and female students answer these questions separately. As students see how their peers respond to these questions, they see the relevance of the theory to their “real life” experiences and are more engaged with the conceptual material of the lesson. Since the clickers allow for anonymous responses, students can respond more honestly than they would without the technology.

Instructors can ask a variety of other questions with clickers—computational questions, opinion questions, questions asking students to predict the outcome of an in-class experiment, and more.

Why Use Clickers?

Clickers promote active participation, engagement, and discussion among all students, even those who might not participate in typical class-wide discussions. Clickers can also be assessment tools, providing students with useful and motivational feedback on their own learning, and providing instructors with information about student learning that helps them respond to immediate student learning needs.

Research on classroom response systems indicates that when used with active learning techniques such as peer instruction, clickers can improve student learning in measurable ways (Crouch and Mazur, 2001). Furthermore, students appreciate the anonymity of clicker systems, as well as the opportunity to test their understanding against their peers. See Caldwell (2007) for a recent review of the literature.

Clickers also have a certain novelty factor that appeals to both students and teachers, at least initially. Even when the novelty wears off, there is still the sense of anticipation that builds just before the bar chart showing the students responses is revealed. For these and other reasons, many instructors who start using clickers find them such an enjoyable and effective instructional tool that they cannot imagine teaching without them.

References & Resources

Barber, M., & Njus, D. (2007). Clicker Evolution: Seeking Intelligent Design. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 6(1), 1-8.

Beatty, I., Gerace, W., Leonard, W., & Dufresne, R. (2006). Designing Effective Questions for Classroom Response System Teaching. American Journal of Physics, 74(1), 31-39.

Caldwell, J. (2007). Clickers in the Large Classroom: Current Research and Best-Practice Tips. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 6(1), 9-20.

Case, S., & Swanson, D. (2002). Constructing Written Test Questions for the Basic and Clinical Sciences. Philadelphia: National Board of Medical Examiners.

Crouch, C., & Mazur, E. (2001). Peer Instruction: Ten Years of Experience and Results. American Journal of Physics, 69(9), 970-977.

Draper, S., & Brown, M. (2004). Increasing Interactivity in Lectures Using an Electronic Voting System. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 20(2), 81-94.

Mazur, E. (1997). Peer Instruction: A User's Manual. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

For more on teaching with clickers, visit the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching resource page on clickers. It features more types of clicker questions and activities, as well as an extensive bibliography arranged by discipline.

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