How clicker technology is changing higher education

Student response systems like i>clicker are not only helping students learn, they're helping teachers teach.

For a long time, college professors had no idea whether their lectures were sinking in --until exam time, when it became clear that students either got the lesson… or didn’t. But in the last decade, the use of student response systems, or hand-held, wireless clickers, has enabled educators to promote learning and improve teaching.

Last week I talked with Michele Shuster, assistant professor of biology at New Mexico State University. Shuster was an early adopter of clickers and also runs clicker workshops for faculty interested in using student response systems in their classrooms. (I was thankful that I wasn’t sitting in a lecture when, 20 minutes in, she told me that most people have an attention span of about 12 minutes.) Excerpts of our conversation are below.

OK, let’s talk about clickers. How long have you been using them?

Eight or nine years. I started using them when they were infrared; now they’re’ radio frequency. I had to carry to class--mounted on tripods--these little receivers. And students had to aim their clickers at the receivers. So when I had a class of 400 students I had four of these, and they had to point their clickers and vote in waves. That technology lasted for a year or two. It was going to be a really hard sell if they couldn’t change that.

i>clicker

Describe what they look like today.

The i>clicker, which is what we use, is a grey box, maybe six inches by two inches with six buttons-- A through E and Off. Some have video screens and look more like a fancy calculator. The ones I’ve seen are little larger than a cell phone.

And who pays for them?

Students pay for the clicker. But the good news is they can use it in all their classes. The first time we used them—with the goofy infrared--it cost five bucks, and students were complaining. Today the range is $25 to 35. Once they’ve purchased it they have to register it, then I open the software on my computer and it will synchronize the database.

Once you’ve synched their clickers with your computer, how does it work?

In the higher education model, most people want to monitor student learning with their clicker, so a lot of people award points for how students perform on questions.

They use their clickers to vote. When they vote, it’s completely anonymous, so when we’re live in the class, I have no idea who is voting what. But after class, if they got the question right, I award one point. If they got it wrong, half a point. And if they and their clicker were not there, they don’t get any points. I ask between five and eight clicker questions in a typical lecture period, and I keep track over the whole semester. At the end of the semester, I typically set the total clicker point to be eight to 10 percent of their final grade. In Intro to Biology, for instance, there are 335 possible points in the class, 30 of which came from the clickers. I think I asked 150 clicker questions in this past semester.

So Intro to Biology. It’s a typical lecture day. What’s an example of a clicker question?

I would say something like: Which of the following is/are actually DNA sequences?:

  • a. centromere
  • b. kinetochore
  • c. DNA polymerase
  • d. primer

(“a” would be the correct answer.)

Then I might ask a few questions in succession about similar-sounding terms (like chromatid and chromatin, etc.), each asking them to identify the best definition for the series of terms that sound the same.

I’ve been doing this for a long time, so I like to think I’m clear, enthusiastic and have good PowerPoints. I think it makes perfect sense when it’s coming out of my mouth. But ultimately it’s up to them—they have to understand it at that level. So then I’ll ask maybe three in a row clicker questions that they tend to mess up because it’s a really hard concept and you have to work through it. I know where they tend to get hung up.

When you use the clickers, they talk about the answers and then they all vote, and you display a graph that shows the distribution of the answers—A, B, C, D. When they all get it right they cheer themselves. When it’s a hard one, it’s split evenly. When you put that up, they immediately know that everyone is confused and they’ll just start laughing. But it gives them reassurance that they weren’t the only one who didn’t get it.

What’s the benefit of letting them talk through the answers?

I always let them talk during the clicker questions. There was a study that came out that showed it was that peer-to-peer interaction that drove the learning during the clicker questions. I use it less as a quiz and more as an educational tool.

Then, if you find yourself in a position where they clearly don’t know what’s going on, you need to know what to do and how you’re going to redirect their thinking without just giving them the answer. Because I encourage them to talk during the question, I can listen in and usually I can get a sense of whether they are going off on a tangent.

Do clickers affect attendance? Or overall performance?

When we did our study, we found the more clicker questions were asked in a class, the better they would do on the corresponding material in the exam. It seemed like it was reinforcing the material. It was a statistically significant observation, but we didn’t even look at why. It could be the peer-to-peer interaction. Or it could just be that they were staying awake. I tend to space [the questions] evenly through the lecture--about every 8 or 9 minutes, about when their attention would start to flag.

Are you saying students can’t pay attention for about more than 10 minutes at a time?

There have been studies that map attention over time, and I can’t remember exactly, but it’s at around 12 minutes people start zoning out—all people.

Do you think this technology is more important in sciences than other areas of study?

In other areas it’s possible to use them in anonymous mode so you’re not collecting responses. Maybe in criminal justice or sociology they might ask a question where they don’t want students to be identifiable—a more personal or politically charged question. Like, “How many of you have a relative in the criminal justice system?” I’ve seen people use them to start conversations in the classroom that might be difficult to start otherwise.

How widespread is clicker use?

In higher education they’re very common now. When I first started, many people didn’t know what they were. Now, the vast majority know what they are.

I just did a teacher workshop for K-12 teachers, and about half didn’t know what they were. I had 80 teachers, and three had used them in their classrooms.

What’s going on with the technology? Will we see clickers on iPhones?

Every now and again I hear about clickers on cell phones. Apparently it’s coming. I don’t know if it’s there yet. I think there’s one system where they can text in their vote—just what we need is another reason for students to text. But they’re far less likely to forget their cell phone than their clicker on any given day.

What clicker innovations would you like to see next?

They do seem to go through batteries reasonably quickly, so most students tend to carry batteries around with them. If you add a screen it will suck the battery even faster. So it would be great if you could just recharge them like cell phone.

But now it seems to be working well for me. The system we’re using is i>clicker. It’s nicely compatible with the Mac. The other system I could run on my Mac but couldn’t maintain the grade sheets on the Mac. So I had to do all these weird manipulations and would spend 15 hours per semester doing stupid stuff with the clickers. Now it’s closer to two hours.

How have clickers changed your teaching over time?

Even in classes where I don’t use them, it still makes me stop and ask them questions and demand an answer. It’s made me get more interactive and get more feedback and think about how else I can use them. For example—if I have two examples I could use to teach the topic I’d ask them the day before and they vote on the example. So that makes them feel like they have more decision-making power in the class.

Before, I was afraid to ask. You know, in law they say never ask a question when you don’t know the answer. I didn’t know what their answers would say [about my teaching].

But now I think it’s great, even if they don’t get it. I’m more comfortable talking about things, and I like the discussion during the clickers—lurking in on their conversation helps me understand their learning. I just listen to how they’re working it out with each other, and sometimes I’ll realize, oh my gosh it’s a huge misconception that I would have no way of knowing. Or it would have never occurred to me that that’s how they were interpreting the material. So immediately after the lecture, I go back to my office and rework the lecture.

Sometimes it’s just adding a sentence or a bullet point. So the feedback has helped inform my teaching because I better understand how they are approaching the material. Also, it gave me the freedom to have a “disruptive” class. Because you’re not supposed to talk during class, right? But then I realized that I could get something out of this. It’s a huge benefit for teachers.

And for students.

I tell them why I use the clickers and show them the data--that it helps their learning and generally helps their grades. When the evals come back, the students say the clickers forced them to think about things more. If I didn’t feel like they were working, I wouldn’t be using them. I don’t use technology just for technology’s sake. But I feel like it’s balancing out in favor of student learning.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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