Teaching with Clickers : Types of Activities

Assessing students’ prior knowledge and identifying misconceptions before introducing a new subject

Prior knowledge is necessary for learning but can be problematic if it is not accurate or sufficient.   It is a good practice for faculty to assess students’ prior knowledge of a subject and identify common misconceptions in order to find an appropriate entry point for introducing a new topic.   By using clicker multiple- choice questions, faculty can quickly gauge students’ knowledge level.   For instance, in a Fall 2006 Chemistry class at U-M, the professor started each lecture with clicker questions asking students to identify new concepts or distinguish between various new concepts discussed in the assigned readings.

Checking students’ understanding of new material

Clicker technology makes it easy for faculty to check students’mastery of lecture content. The immediate display of student responses enables faculty and students to see how well students understand the lecture.   As a result, faculty can decide whether there is a need for further instruction or supplementary materials.   By seeing peers’ responses, students can gauge how well they are doing in relation to others in the class and determine which topics they need to review or bring to office hours.

Using Peer Instruction and other active learning strategies

Peer Instruction (Mazur, 1997) and Think-Pair-Share (Lyman, 1981) are cooperative learning strategies that faculty often use to probe students’ understanding of lecture content and encourage them to discuss, debate, and defend their answers during lecture.   The strategy entails posing a question to students, giving them time to think and discuss their responses with a partner, and then describing the results to the whole class.

Clicker technology makes the use of these strategies feasible and manageable, even for large classes.   For example, the instructor will plan for each lecture several concept questions that focus more on the analysis and evaluation of information than simple recall, rote memorization, or calculation.   Students are asked to share and discuss their responses with partners. Some faculty ask students to respond twice to difficult questions, once right after they read the question and then again after they talk to their partners.   The faculty member then reviews and explains varying student responses, helping them clear up their misconceptions.

Research in physics (Crouch & Mazur, 2001) shows that students’ cognitive gains from peer instruction are significant: students’scores on tests measuring conceptual understanding improved dramatically; their performance on traditional quantitative problems improved as well.

Starting class discussion on difficult topics

The anonymity of responses facilitated by the clicker technology allows faculty to initiate class discussion and debate on sensitive topics that might otherwise be difficult to explore.   For example, questions on controversial issues in a political science course can sometimes be met with absolute silence (Abrahamson, 1999), but the use of clickers can help change classroom dynamics.   Faculty can start the class lecture or discussion by posing controversial questions and offering “common-sense” multiple-choice responses. Students’ responses, and their questions about their peers' responses, can provide an opening for class discussion.   When students recognize their own opinions and co-direct a class discussion, they may feel a greater sense of ownership over the lecture and discussion. As a result, they will be more engaged in and responsible for their own learning.   Also, instead of drawing conclusions from the most vocal students, the faculty member receives a far more accurate overview of opinions from the entire class.   Most important, the anonymous feature of the clicker system ensures that viewpoints that might not otherwise be expressed during class discussion are given a voice.

Administering tests and quizzes during lecture

The relative ease of managing students’ responses has made the clicker system a helpful device for testing and grading during lecture.   Features such as automatic scoring and record-keeping for each student enable faculty to administer all sorts of tests and quizzes in large lecture halls.   For example, in one physics class at U-M, students’ responses to questions posed during lecture are scored. Students who answer the questions correctly earn points that count toward a small percentage of the course grade (allocating too many points to a clicker quiz can increase the likelihood of cheating).   Moreover, with instant feedback from students, faculty can adjust the pace of a lecture and the amount of content presented, assist students in identifying their knowledge deficiency, help students re- evaluate their study strategies, and determine what additional resources they might need to provide.

Gathering feedback on teaching

With clicker technology, faculty can gather anonymous feedback on their own teaching by asking students to respond to questions regarding the lecture, class discussion, homework assignments, group activities, or the overall learning experience in the course.   If used early in the term, faculty can make changes to the class that benefit students before the end of the term.

Recording class attendance and participation

Taking attendance in a large lecture course is usually daunting, if not impossible.   But with a system that recognizes each student, it is feasible and convenient for faculty to take student attendance in a large lecture. For example, students’ responses to questions asked at the beginning of the lecture often serve as a record of their attendance.   The instructor can easily run reports on student responses and find out who is present or absent from the class.

Admittedly, faculty hold different views on student class attendance.   Some firmly believe that being in class and listening to a lecture is an integral part of learning, making class attendance a must; others think it is not essential for learning and it can be left to the students to decide. Similarly, student opinions about mandatory class attendance vary.   Some U-M students surveyed in 2006 and 2007 responded negatively when clickers were used only to check class attendance (Zhu, Bierwert, & Bayer).

There are many other creative ways clickers are being used in classrooms.   Draper, Cargill, and Cutts (2002) list three: Students can use them to give anonymous feedback on their peers’ class presentations by responding to a brief post-presentation survey.   Faculty can create a sense of community and group awareness by clustering people’s hobbies, habits, and preferences through student responses to anonymous surveys. Kam & Sommer (2006) note the use of clickers for campaign simulation and polling research, as well as the technology’s ability to monitor and facilitate individual and group games.   In summary, the only limitation on innovative applications of clickers is the creativity of the instructor.

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