Why I Use Clickers, Part 1

(We can take bets on how many “Why I use <insert tech/gadget here>” posts I will end up having.)

I have, perhaps insanely, jumped right into teaching Intro Bio at the University of Michigan. Here, there are two Intro Bio courses, which can be taken in either order. There is Bio 171, which covers Ecology & Evolutionary Biology (that would be the one I teach), and there is Bio 172, which covers Molecular, Cell, & Developmental Biology (fortunately for everyone, I do not teach this one). There are ~680 students in Bio 171, split between two lectures. The noon lecture is taught by my colleague Barry OConnor, who has quite a bit of experience teaching intro here. I teach the 3PM lecture, and, not surprisingly given that I just got here, this is my first time teaching it. Barry and I each teach the full semester of the course, which will become relevant in a bit.

While I am certainly not an expert in pedagogy, I know enough to know that a problem with large lecture courses is that students can end up not feeling engaged, and that attending lecture can be a passive experience. This lack of engagement can lead to attrition of science majors. How to overcome these challenges is important, because, while there is increased interest in effective teaching strategies and retention of students in the sciences, large lecture courses are not going away. A recent survey, the results of which were reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, found that 63% of faculty in STEM disciplines (that is, science, technology, engineering, and math) reported “extensive lecturing” in their classes.

What to do about this problem? One fairly easy solution is to engage students regularly in class, and to create opportunities for peer discussion. A very common way to do this is to use clickers, which are sold by a variety of companies (such as this one and this one). My impression is that many (most?) universities have some sort of clicker system set up, but I don’t actually have any data on that and may well be wrong. The clicker technology, of course, is not necessary for classroom discussions – good, engaging teachers have been using peer discussion in their classrooms for much longer than clickers have existed. But, in my opinion, clickers make it easier to get student feedback, reduce the potential for student embarrassment about getting an answer wrong, and allow for anonymous polling (if desired) with instant results that the class can see. Students love seeing the histogram of results appear. (There are good reasons to not have the histogram appear for the class, but I generally show it to them right away.)

Here, I will lay out some of the reasons why I find clickers useful, and give some feedback that I recently got from my students that indicates that they also find them useful. In a future post, I will cover things like how to get started using clickers, different strategies for using clickers (e.g., think-pair-share), and whether to link a student’s grade with the clicker questions.

So, some of the reasons why I find clickers useful:
1. Getting instant feedback. There are times when I think I’ve covered something a lot, but it’s something that is important and I want to make sure the students get it before I move on. For example, in Intro Bio, one thing we really try to teach students is how science is done, so we spend a lot of time going through experiments that were done to test different hypotheses. In the competition unit, for example, we talk about Connell’s classic barnacle experiment. (My guess is that this example is used in every competition lecture given, but maybe I’m wrong.) During this class, I laid out the system and described Connell’s experiment. I then asked them which was the control: the rocks that had both species left on them, or the rocks that had just one species on them. This ended up being a very hard question for the students. Only ~30% of them could correctly identify the control. So, instead of moving on, I then went back through the experiment design to explain why the side with both species on it would count as a control. Understanding controls is obviously really important, and I was happy to spend extra time on it making sure they understood what was going on. Other times, I am happy to see that 80+% of the class understands the concept I’ve been trying to get across, and then I can feel more confident moving on.

2. Generating discussion. Probably the most successful clicker question I’ve used so far this semester was during the meiosis lecture. I put up a picture of a cell and asked the students to identify what 2n equaled. About 2/3 of the class got this correct (2n = 6), with most of the others saying 2n=12. The reason this question was so successful is that one of the students who didn’t get it correct raised his hand to say he was confused. That was fantastic, because it set off a discussion that revealed that much more than 1/3 of the class was actually confused about some key underlying concepts (especially 1. that, even if there are sister chromatids, it still counts as one chromosome, and 2. that the replication that occurs prior to meiosis does not generate the homologous chromosomes, but, rather, the sister chromatids). Those are really, really important points, and the level of confusion and where the problems were only came out because of the opportunity for discussion that started with the clicker question (and with a student who was confident enough to say he didn’t understand).

3. Making students realize that they don’t understand something. When teaching General Ecology at Georgia Tech, a common problem I had was that students thought they understood competition, but, in reality, didn’t. Lotka-Volterra competition models were especially hard, but I felt like I had a hard time convincing students that they should pay attention, because they didn’t know this material as well as they thought they did. Enter clickers. I ended up asking a clicker question where I asked them which direction the zero net growth isoclines should point in. None of the students got it correct. That was eye-opening to them, and I think encouraged them to pay more attention.

4. Breaking up the lecture. This is perhaps the most obvious, but it’s boring to listen to one person talk for 50 minutes straight. Clicker questions break things up a little, get the students chatting with one another, and get them out of passive listening mode, all of which are good things. And, importantly, as is summarized by Roedinger et al., testing makes students retrieve information, and the process of retrieval improves their memory. I’ve shifted over the course of the semester towards having more review questions that force students to recall information from previous lectures. For example, during a lecture on mutations, I asked them a clicker question about different evolutionary forces (including mutations), which was something we had covered in class earlier in the week.

5. Scaffolding. In some cases, I knew that, if I asked students to go from concept A to concept E in one leap, they would have a hard time with that. But, if I had them work their way from A to B to C to D to E, they would probably get there. For example, when teaching (in General Ecology) about life history theory, I’ve had them walk through the different steps that would lead to certain predicted life history trade-offs, using a series of clicker questions. I haven’t been doing this last one as much this semester, in part because the other section does not use clickers. Because of that, we made a decision at the beginning of the semester that any essential information would be given on the slides I give to students, to try to keep things even between the two sections. That makes it harder to have them work things out for themselves. When teaching a course on my own, I leave blanks in the notes I give the students. They then have to fill those in in class, sometimes based on what they had worked out for themselves over the course of the lecture. I prefer that approach, but it hasn’t been possible given the structure of my current course.

So, I think clickers end up being useful for a bunch of different reasons. I’m sure I’m missing some other benefits – please bring those up in the comments!

Do the students find it useful? Encouragingly, yes! With assistance from the University of Michgian’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, we did an anonymous mid-semester evaluation of my students. 78% of students agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “Clicker questions contribute to my learning,” and 81% of students agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “Clicker questions help me process what I just learned.” Those numbers are quite encouraging!

So, overall, I’m a fan of using clickers in large lecture courses, and it seems like students are, too. As promised, in a future post, I will talk more about how to start using clickers, different strategies for using clickers, and questions related to whether and how to incorporate clicker questions into the grading scheme for the course. So, stay tuned! And, if there are other things related to clickers that you’d like covered, please let me know!

41 thoughts on “Why I Use Clickers, Part 1

  1. duffymeg, good post – I agree on the utility of clickers. It sounds like you’ll come to additional reasons and tips for clickers….. but several comments. Clickers are also useful to assess student preconceptions and misconceptions. For example, I often ask students a question on something we have not covered (e.g., what causes the seasons?) and then return to ask them again after going through it. It is satisfying to see the histograms shift in the correct direction, and pointing this out to students helps them to remember it. But It was quite a shock to see, towards the end of the semester in undergraduate ecology, that approximately 40% of the class had decided human-caused climate change was a myth! At that point I was unlikely to reach them, as their arguments were more ideological than scientific. Suffice it to say that I’ve learned more about the students that I expected. Daniel Gruner

    • Excellent point. I’ve only done this a little bit. For example, before going into ways of classifying species, I asked the students if they learned a 5 kingdom or 3 domain system (or both) in high school. It could be interesting to get their opinions on other things (including climate change!), but I don’t think I’m brave enough to try that yet! There is a way to poll the students anonymously with the system we use, so it would be possible to ask them about fairly sensitive topics with them answering totally anonymously.

      Do you know what their opinion on climate change would have been at the beginning of the semester? My first time teaching ecology, I was totally dismayed that 30% of the students couldn’t list competition as a major interspecific interaction on the final. But then I asked students in future classes that question at the beginning, and 70% were unable to list competition then. (This was remarkably consistent across semesters.) So, the 30% at the end was actually a nice improvement.

      • It would be a very good idea to ask about climate change at the outset. I also ask where students are from, what are their majors, career goals, etc…. to get a better sense of where they are coming from.

        The clickers are also a great way to induce student participation, as many students are mute because they are afraid of “getting it wrong.” After polling, I can ask one of the students who answered correctly to explain their answer. That does not guarantee they answered correctly for the right reasons, of course, but more often than not, it empowers that students to explain concepts to their classmates.

      • Yes, I also ask students to explain their answers. This is one of the things I’m planning on covering in the follow up to this post, because the strategies for doing think-pair-share, or asking students to explain why they answered the way they did, weren’t immediately clear to me.

        It sounds like we use clickers similarly!

    • Re: student ideology, I once heard from Josh Van Buskirk, who spent a year at Texas Tech, that the biology dept. once surveyed the undergrads there and found 2/3 didn’t believe in evolution. There were no issues with students walking out of lectures or giving creationist answers on exams or anything, though. The students (most of whom were premed) just learned to parrot whatever the prof was teaching.

      But that’s a side comment, I don’t want to derail the thread. Your larger point about using clickers to reveal student preconceptions, and to show how those preconceptions change, is a great one. And the point that this helps the students actually remember things, which isn’t something I’d thought of, but which makes sense.

      I’ve never used clickers myself–yet. I’ve only taught upper-level courses so far. But it’s likely that as soon as next year I’ll be in either intro ecology or first year biology. And our classrooms for those big lectures are clicker-equipped. So I’m reading this post and the comments with great interest!

      • Some great comments here, thanks. I just want to recommend that we always try to use the term “accept evolution” instead of “believe in evolution”. Better for climate change too.

  2. Thanks so much for this article. I found it via Twitter and as a future secondary school teacher, I’ve wondered what ways clickers would help me. You pointed out quite a few.

    How do the students in your class get the clickers? Do they pick them up on the way into class? Or are they already at each seat. I can’t imagine how you keep track of the devices.

    • Here at Michigan, the students buy a clicker (they cost ~$25), and then can use that clicker for all their courses for the entire time they are here (unless they lose it, of course). They just need to register the clicker once, and then the clicker ID gets linked with their student ID, and the system automatically links things up.

      With the system at Georgia Tech, I believe the students entered their student ID into the clicker themselves. This occasionally led to a problem when a student shared a clicker with a roommate and forgot to change the ID, as there would be answers for a student ID for a student that wasn’t in the class. But it was usually pretty easy to straighten out.

      A former postdoc of mine is now a high school teacher, and I know her high school owns the clickers and the students use them for class. I don’t know more details about how it works, though.

      • Wow, that is great. I’m at North Carolina State University in the graduate program. I don’t know if they use clickers in large undergrad classes yet (my undergrad work there was pre-clicker). Most secondary schools here have them available to be checked out at each class.
        There are also ways to use students’ phones in the same way, but I can’t recall the software right now.

        After reading your article I’m really thinking I will try to get used to using them in my student teaching next semester. Is it pretty easy to add the questions to your ppt presentations?

      • I would bet there’s a teaching center at NC State that would help you start to use the clickers. The specifics of how to add the clicker questions differs depending on the clicker system. At GT, the system required linking the questions with ppt, but here at Michigan, it’s totally independent. (The system just saves a screenshot of whatever you have up at the time you start the poll, so you can see what the question was.)

        Another instructor here at Michigan uses something called LectureTools, which links with students’ phones. I haven’t used that, though, so I don’t know anything about the mechanics of it.

  3. While I think you make some valid points in your post, I still think that as a student I prefer classes that don’t use clickers over classes that do, all else being equal. While there are certainly plenty of valid pedagogical reasons for using clickers or something similar, those reasons are often opaque to students and at times for me it has felt as if professors are essentially just making us all pay an extra $35 or so in order to make their own lives a little easier (which is not a bad thing in and of itself, but when it comes at the expense of hundreds of students it does rankle somewhat). I have sometimes felt that clickers are used as a crutch by professors to avoid having to go to the effort of “reading” their classes and having to do the work of fostering spontaneous participation. Rather than actually engaging the students (something that I will admit can no doubt be very difficult, especially in an intro class with 300+ enrollment) some professors seem to act as though it is enough to simply get the students to click a button in response to a question on a screen.

    It was refreshing to hear that there are professors who actually have sound and thoughtful reasons for wanting to employ clickers in their classes, and I will certainly look on professors who use them in a different light from now on. However I would suggest that it is perhaps important that students understand exactly why it is that you are requiring them to shell out the thirty-five bucks (especially when textbook expenses are such a sore point among students) and why it is that you think they will get a better experience out of your class with clickers than they would without. It has been my anecdotal experience that students are sympathetic to the challenges of teaching, when they are explained to them, and that they are more likely to pay attention to a professor who has clearly put thought into their teaching style and made some intentional choices about how to teach a class. If nothing else it makes it easier for students to select professors whose teaching style matches their own learning style.

    Thanks for the article. As someone who hopes to be a professor one day himself, it is very interesting to read about the thoughts and choices that professors make when planning their courses.


    • Hi Gabriel. Thanks for the reply. It’s great to get student feedback on this. I was definitely concerned about the cost issue, which is part of why I made clickers optional in my class. But I also know that clickers are required in the other semester of Intro Bio (and many other courses that a Bio major would need to take here, including calculus and physics courses), so, to me, the cost is negligible (given that the students will need to buy the clicker for their other courses anyway). Of course, probably no one views his/herself as the person requiring that initial purchase at that point (since everyone can point to another course that also requires them at this point). But it at least means the cost per course is probably pretty low (maybe ~$5).

      It’s also part of why I was so pleasantly surprised at the student feedback. 80% of my students reported finding the clicker questions useful, but response rates are definitely <80%. This suggests to me that just having the questions is apparently helping the other students, even if they aren't actually logging in with their clickers.

      • All excellent points here. In response to Jeremy’s comment about not posting lectures online, I also shared this philosophy, but had to quickly change it upon getting hired at my current institution. As a laptop university, I was told in my faculty orientation that all course materials need to be provided online. This wasn’t just because it was part of their “technology-enhanced learning environment”, but one of the requirements in “Universal Design for Learning” (UDL). In Ontario, by law, we must get training in UDL to adhere to the mandate of the AODA (Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act). Part of the UDL framework is to accommodate different learning styles, such as audio and visual learners. Posting of lecture material online ahead of time is aimed at improving learning accessibility.

        There are a number of great teaching strategies that I have adopted based on UDL, including explanation of the format and expectations of the course right at the beginning (which has been nicely explained here). I do have a few philosophical differences in some aspects of UDL, where I worry UDL nudges in the direction of course modification rather than just student accomodation. However, that is a discussion for another day:)

      • Wow, based on what you’ve said (as I know nothing else about the rules in Ontario, or about how your university lawyers interpret those rules), that definitely seems to me to go beyond accommodation into meddling in course design! I could see giving out my notes to individual students who needed that accommodation for whatever reason. But if you just stick your notes up online, that accommodation seems like it could really change how students not needing that accommodation approach the course. I’m by no means an expert on accommodation law or policies in general (I’m of course familiar with and adhere to my own university’s policies). But just off the top of my head, the disability accommodations I can think of mostly don’t have “side effects” on those who aren’t accommodated. I’m thinking of accommodations like extra exam time, or being allowed to type an exam, or take an exam alone in a distraction-free environment, or of non-academic accommodations like wheelchair ramps…

        What’s your experience been? Have you found that some students are just relying on your notes when they shouldn’t be? Have you somehow adjusted your teaching in other ways to try to prevent or mitigate that?

      • Sorry, I don’t want to derail the thread here, but there is much to discuss on this topic! I will focus on the points/questions raised by Jeremy:

        You make a good point Jeremy in that I don’t believe that I am “legally required” to post my lectures online, but when you are new faculty at a relative new university that places much emphasis on T&L, I was surprised but compliant with the expectations. The culture at my uni is quite unique compared to more established places, so I will leave it at that. As our Faculty Association grows and matures, I imagine there will be more push back with respect to freedom of delivery, method etc. Aspects of those issues are already in our collective bargaining agreement. I will say that regardless of what our rights are as instructors, there is still a perception of compliance or non-compliance with UDL and the technology-enhanced learning environment when it comes time for annual reviews and tenure and promotion.

        My lecture slides are just a shell of the lecture material anyway (and I explicitly state this in my course syllabus). My pitch on the first day of class follows the “you only get as much as you put in” mantra. Without trying to be too preachy, I try to articulate that coming to lecture, asking questions, even just listening to my dialogue with other students that ask questions, enriches their learning experience. I in turn ask them questions throughout the lecture, which also is aimed at engaging them and assessing their comprehension of the material. I have used the phrase “Ecology is hard” many times, reinforcing the notion that just reading slides and the textbook is not enough for all students to grasp the concepts. Once I get off my soap box on the first day of class, I am resigned to the fact that there will always be students that won’t come to class or care about learning the material. I was told during orientation that we need to treat students as adults, and if they choose not to come to class, that is their choice.

        As I mentioned previously, I do have some philosophical and even practical concerns with some aspects of UDL and the lengths to which accommodations are to be made. However, I have taken some very useful and practical pointers/ideas and incorporated them into my teaching style and course delivery. I am always looking for ways to become a better teacher (and I know I still have a way to go), so I should give some credit, where credit is due. If you want to learn more about UDL concepts and pointers go to this link: http://apa.uoit.ca/accessibility/?page_id=457 .

        Overall, UDL is an attempt at going beyond just accommodating students with obvious physical disabilities. It recognizes that there are several learning types present in a classroom, not just those that have self-reported to a campus disability centre. It has certainly made me think a bit more of who my audience is and how to maximize my delivery and engagement with them.

      • Wow – I agree – that’s way too much interference in your course. Most people I know post their powerpoint slides anyway, but I don’t. I do post a lecture note handout (not MY notes) that has nearly all the info from the powerpoints typed up, but there are a few large blank spots for some topics, to force students to come to class to fill in that info. Those who bring their laptops can type right into the note file too. I want them paying attention to my words, not feverishly writing down everything, and I think just posting slides doesn’t give them the full story either. If my department or college required me to post my powerpoints for everyone, I would push back on that. But that’s just me.

    • Instructors in general have a responsibility to explain to their students that they aren’t using a particular teaching techniques because it’s easy, but rather, because it actually works. (To back up a step, instructors have a responsibility to use techniques that work, and that aren’t just easy. I’m not sure that most instructors do that.) Writing about peer instruction, which relies on clicker questions, Peter Crouch and Eric Mazur explain that: “It has been established that students often require a period of adjustment to new methods of instruction before their learning improves. It is common for some or many students to be initially skeptical about this form of instruction. Consequently, proper motivation of the students is essential.” (Crouch and Mazur 2001, Am. J. Phys. 69(9), 970-977). Mazur and many others have abundant evidence that clickers work well to improve student learning. But teachers also need to take a little bit of extra time to explain to their students that the new techniques they’re about to see in a classroom are designed to help them learn more, better and faster. I feel like science teachers in particular have a responsibility to use techniques that have been demonstrated through research to work well, and to explain to their students just a bit about why they do what they do.

      • Good point. This isn’t just an issue with explaining one’s choice of technology. As an instructor, I go out of my way to explain everything about how the class works. Why I don’t make my lecture notes available online (I want students to attend lecture and pay attention). Why, in quantitative classes, I give a number of lectures over to in-class practice problems, on which students work in pairs. Indeed, why I even teach any quantitative material at all (you have to nip the “We’re biologists, why are you making us do math?” attitude in the bud right at the beginning). I do this in all my courses, even graduate seminars. In my experience, if you explain to students why you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing, they respect it, even if they don’t always agree with it.

      • Yes, I also agree. In general, I try to explain why we do things the way we do. This is easier after I’ve taught the course once before, since then I have data from that course that I can show students. For example, when I introduced clickers in my ecology course at GT (and linked them with participation points to encourage attendance), I showed them data on how attendance in previous years correlated strongly with exam performance. (Of course, there are confounding factors, but I do think showing up helps improve performance.)

        Not specifically related to clickers or technology, but I’ve been trying to include slides at the beginning of new units that focus on why this is a topic that is relevant to the students, to try to draw them in more.

        I definitely agree with the idea that, if you explain why you’re doing something in a course, that goes a long way to showing students that you’ve thought carefully about it, and earning some respect.

  4. Great job Meg! The largest class I have taught with any regularity is Ecology and I too have to cover Lotka-Volterra models (I just dedicate half my lecture to them and tell them the exact written question I will ask them on the exam – still ends up only getting a 70% correct response). I have never used clickers and am intrigued by them. Inspired by one of your recent FB posts, I asked a few of my students how they felt about them and they didn’t like them all that much and felt like it didn’t help them learn. Now that could certainly be a product of how the professor was using them (e.g., simply as an attendance tool) and they just haven’t had an eye-opening experience like you describe here. Given that my foreseeable rotation of courses will likely max out at 40 or so, I’m unlikely to use them just yet, mainly because I’d like to try to engage more personally with the class in that setting and always look for ways to save my students money. I’ll be interested to see how your experiences change and encourage you to pass along any negative experiences or comments you get from students as well.

    • Hey Ted! Yep, I would think with classes of 40 or less, it would be awkward to use clickers, and that just using normal discussion based techniques would work. I taught a class at GT with 30 students that was entirely discussion based (well, I would give 5ish minute mini lectures sometimes). No textbook — just readings from the primary literature (including reviews). It worked amazingly well. I will definitely use that approach for smaller classes I teach here.

      It would be interesting to know if the reasons the students like the clickers match up at all with the reasons why I like them. I have no idea what reasons they would give.

  5. Hi Meg – great post.

    Your experiences largely match mine. I was responsible for introducing clickers to the intro bio class at McGill University (~600 students). It quickly turned into a larger effort to introduce clickers into all large undergrad science classes and I was on the steering committee with a bunch of education professionals so I got to see how it worked across a bunch of classes and get the benefit of existing research.

    A couple of my thoughts:
    A) You have to acknowledge up front that clickers are an attempt to put a good face on a bad situation. A 600 student class is in no way an optimal learning situation. There is some number between 50 and 150 where once the class crosses that threshold the benefit of the professor being there are minimal. You cannot say that to your university who is asking you to teach (nor could I in my universities), but I can say it here. But you (& the Chronicle) are absolutely right this is not going away.
    B) You missed one of my big reasons for using clickers – attendance! Before clickers were introduced average class attendance dropped from 600 at the start to 300 or less by the end of the semester. With clickers, attendance stayed up over 450 all semester. I didn’t give points for right or wrong answers, but 5% of the class grade was tied to showing up and clicking.
    C) I agree that the main reason to use clickers in engagement. This is hard to quantify, but as a professor standing in front of a class, you can tell. When I went to observe the class the year before the back 1/3 were reading newspapers or checking email or sleeping, and the middle 1/3 were taking notes lackadaisically (and this was with excellent teachers who got better teacher evals than I did so it is absolutely a comment on the context, not the individual). With clickers a good 90% of the attendees were awake and paying attention. I think this also goes to your point #4 – even adults need a rhythm to lectures that is more on the 20 minute scale than 50 (at least some jokes or slowing of pace).
    D) In my role of interacting with other professors, #1 came up over and over, mostly in a negative way. What if I do a clicker question and it is clear the students DO NOT understand. To me this was a win – a chance to reengage and try again. But to many professors, clickers played to the very natural fear of having to improvise in front of 600 people.
    E) Students were also very positive on clickers in my class and in the larger university wide rollout.
    F) Assessing whether clickers improved the grade was very hard. The medians on the midterm and final were the same as previous years, but I covered different material and hence a different test. I would like to think I covered more conceptual material and thus the same median represented a higher level of learning but who can say. In the end, I think introducing clickers to improve grades is the wrong reason. Using clickers to improve engagement and interaction is the right reason.
    G) All the studies I was exposed to show that clickers require a willingness to revamp teaching style. Classes which remained traditional lecture with a few clicker questions thrown in had very little effect. It was the classes that used clickers to support peer learning or other techniques. The way I used them was: a) ask a question before I covered the material, b) give the class 5 minutes to break into small groups & discuss the answer, c) retest on clickers, then d) teach the material. It was amazing how much the correct answer gained between a & c. It convinced me that peer education was probably much more successful than anything I was doing lecturing. Also, this structure gives you a chance to pull in your #1 (feedback on what students don’t know) and your #3 (students know they don’t understand). One positive outcome of clickers was I regularly had students come to me after class and ask me “I’m just not getting X – what can I do to learn it better”. In the past they never knew they didn’t get it until the exam, and then it just was a shoulder shrug as it was too late for them to do anything.

    • Great comments Brian (this whole thread is very helpful to me).

      Re: B, good point, I didn’t realize that clickers could encourage attendance.

      Re: C, it’s interesting how attention spans have changed over time. For instance, in the Scopes trial Clarence Darrow’s closing argument basically took an entire day, IIRC. And it was widely regarded as a tremendous speech, not as insanely long-winded. Yes, something of an apples-to-oranges comparison, but intriguing nonetheless, I think.

      Re: D, how can you possibly be a university lecturer if you’re scared to improvise?!

      Re: G, yeah, combining clickers with what we call “pair & share” (pair up with your neighbor and discuss the answer to a question) is the way to go.

    • Yes, attendance is definitely a great potential use, and is one I’ve used in the past. But, since they aren’t linked to grades in the class I’m teaching this semester, that isn’t a factor. But it is a reason why I am generally in favor of having some number of points be participation points linked, at least in part, to clicker use. The downside, of course, is that then there is incentive for students to cheat (e.g., by sending their clicker with their friend). When I was first considering using clickers, I sat in on an Intro Bio class at Georgia Tech. The student next to me proceeded to pull out three clickers and enter answers in all three the whole class. This gave me the idea to take advantage of students’ tendency to not recognize younger women as faculty: young female faculty could be deployed to monitor what is going on in classes. (In this particular case, I waited until the end of class, and then introduced myself to the student and took all three clickers from him. He was completely shocked.)

      Re: C (engagement): I have been really impressed with how engaged my students have been. I’ve had four different people sit in my class so far this semester to give me feedback (in part because feedback is standard for faculty in their first semester here, and in part because I will come up for tenure this summer). Collectively, they reported seeing a single student who was not looking at course materials on his computer. That was totally shocking to me (in a good way, of course).

      Re: G: Yep, we do a lot of think-pair-share. Only once has the class moved in the wrong direction — oops!

  6. I would like to use clickers but haven’t taken the leap. Right now, I have students write an answer anonymously (or answers to a series of questions) and then we shuffle the deck by passing the nameless papers to neighbors and then to those neighbors (and then sometimes to those neighbors). Then the students read the answers on the sheet of paper in front of them, so its not their answer and no one knows who’s answer it is. This is much more time consuming than clickers, but free. For some questions I have them work in small groups to get the answer.

    I’d especially like the clickers for my single (1H 15M) lecture that I do in all my courses on how science leads to knowledge. The content of the lecture has drifted to more, why we believe the stuff we believe. I start the lecture with a series of about 10 questions on how much we agree/disagree with statements like AGW or germ theory of disease or sliding filament theory of muscle contraction, or common ancestry of all living organisms, or ion channel theory of the action potential, etc. etc. Some mundane and some politically loaded. Or I might tell them a story about how I consulted an old Maple tree in my yard that gave me the recipe for ridding my body of a spell that was causing me to have migraine headaches. And then poll the students for who believes my story. Part of the point is that many of the things we believe, we believe not because we’ve evaluated the evidence, but because we live in a certain part of the world, at a certain part of the earth’s history, have certain parents, and grew up in a certain neighborhood. and had these certain friends, have a certain sexualized brain and body, we were first born or last born etc. etc. This leads to lots of discussion. Why in the world would these social and historical factors determine our belief in scientific knowledge? Isn’t science objective? The beauty of this is that its easy to find anti-science beliefs on both sides of the political spectrum and any other spectrum so the discussion can remain pretty balanced without picking on any particular group. I’d like to say the final point is recognizing these sources (cognitive and cultural biases) of input to our beliefs makes us better critical thinkers and scientists but then maybe this itself is cognitive illusion. So maybe the final point is that we all bring cognitive and cultural biases into our beliefs and science has developed over the last few thousand years as a way of minimizing the effect of these biases as a collective on what we consider truths/facts. If scientists across many cultures, political stripes, etc generally agree, then we can be pretty confident in the science – unless of course the entire field is under a mass delusion. So yeh, clicker would be a good tool for this kind of lecture because answers can be embarrassing or sensitive AND one could easily look at correlates (as mentioned above) like religious belief, SES, gender, region of the country or rural/urban childhood, etc). My students are mostly liberal so I have much bigger population of anti-GMO/Vax/modern medicine than anti AGW/Evolution students.

    • Wow, your class sounds great! I would love to sit in on that class and see it in action. I especially like this point: “we all bring cognitive and cultural biases into our beliefs and science has developed over the last few thousand years as a way of minimizing the effect of these biases as a collective on what we consider truths/facts. If scientists across many cultures, political stripes, etc generally agree, then we can be pretty confident in the science.” That would be a really great thing to add to my class, I think.

      I know that someone who teaches a non majors course on climate change here at UMich gives his students quotes from various politicians (of all stripes) and then has the students analyze the different parts of their statements to assess the scientific validity of them. It helps teach students to think critically about things they hear, which helps. He’s found the exercise goes better if he removes the “R” or “D” from the quote/politician’s name, since then it seems less partisan to the students.

      I would think that clickers could help streamline some of what you describe doing. The class that is in the lecture hall before mine gives quizzes on paper at the end of many (maybe even most) classes. There are somewhere around 350-400 students trying to turn in these little strips of paper between classes, which makes it totally chaotic. Some day, I will pull the instructor aside and offer to show her how to use clickers, just to make my life easier! 🙂

  7. Really interesting post. I have seen clickers work and not work so well so it is nice to see some ideas to make them effective. At two of the universities I’ve been at, teachers have the option to borrow clickers as well. This could work for smaller classes where it isn’t hard to keep track of them. Then you use them without cost for the students. I’ve also heard that there are apps being created for smart phones–which, as smart phone use increases, might be a good way of circumventing the need to buy a separate device. All in all it seems to be a good way to increase learning in the classroom, if used in a thoughtful way. As more classes use active learning techniques, the culture will likely change and hopefully students will be less resistant to them. But for now I agree with the previous comments on informing students about why you are using a particular technique is a really good idea. Perhaps showing them a classic figure from teaching in Physics might help (Hake 1998) where he shows that the learning gain is much greater in classes that use some/any kind of active learning technique in teaching (Figure 2 in the paper). [This link discusses active learning and has a link to the pdf: http://cetl.ucdavis.edu/active-learning-7-principles/%5D. But despite the knowledge of the effectiveness of these techniques, it does seem that we’re a long way to using them widely. I would be really interested in looking at the article in higher education but although my university has access it doesn’t seem to be for this premium content. Does anyone know if there is a way to read it without paying for a yearly subscription? Thanks!

    • Thanks for the comments, and for the link to the Davis site.

      Is it the Roediger article you’re looking for? I got it via academia.edu, where you can set up a free account.

      Before I would feel okay about using a smart phone as a device for this sort of thing, I think I’d want to see more data on how much it would cost the students relative to the clickers. Do enough students already have data plans &/or texting plans that it would be cost effective for them?

      • Oops, I was curious about the Chronicle of Higher Ed report…but thanks for the new resource for other papers. I’m going to look into that.

        I’m not sure we’re there yet for the use of phones as clickers but I’m guessing that within a number of years they might be common enough. We definitely need to be careful about the economy of our classes and make sure that we don’t discriminate against those without resources. But on the encouraging note, I did think that it was pretty interesting that your students seem to be benefiting from clicker use even when they aren’t using them personally.

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