Why I Use Clickers, Part 2

Earlier, I talked about my use of clickers in Intro Bio (and previous courses). That post focused on reasons to use clickers (with some links to articles related to the underlying pedagogy) and on the reasons I find clickers useful.

Now that the semester is over, I can still say that I’m very glad that I used clickers. I plan on expanding my use of them the next time I teach Intro Bio. As expected based on the mid-semester survey we did of students, comments from students on the end-of-semester evaluations indicated they had liked this aspect of the course and felt like clickers helped them learn.

Let’s assume that some of you are now considering using clickers. What to do now? My first suggestion is to talk with colleagues at your school who are using them and/or with people at your school’s center for teaching. At UMich, that is the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. They are more than happy to help faculty figure out how to use clickers. As was discussed some in the comments on the original post, my impression is that most schools have a particular type of clicker that they are set up to use. This is good for the students, since it means that they don’t need to buy lots of different clickers for their different classes. And it’s good for faculty, because it means you don’t need to be a pioneer and figure everything out on your own. At Georgia Tech, I got the clicker set up from their version of CRLT (which is called CEISMC), and then a colleague gave me a quick run through on how to set it up and use it in class. At UMich, I contacted CRLT and they told me about a training session they had the next week. I went, got a clicker, learned how to use it (it was a different system than I’d used at Georgia Tech), and was off and running. It was not nearly as big a deal to implement as I thought it would be.

Another major point that I didn’t properly address in my original post – but that is a big one to consider – is whether and how to tie clicker participation/performance with the course grade. There are various options, including:

1. Having clicker usage be totally voluntary (that is, no points tied with clicker use). This is what I did this past semester in Intro Bio. The main incentive for students to use clickers is because it helps them learn and keeps them engaged. A major disadvantage of this, though, is that, even if students know that clickers help with learning, sometimes that isn’t as motivating as knowing that your grade is affected by something. I feel certain that attendance would have been higher if clicker participation directly affected student grades; and, since I think there is value to attending class, increased attendance would be a good thing, in my opinion.

2. Incorporate clickers into the grading scheme, but just based on participation (that is, not based on whether they get a question right or not). This is what I did when I used clickers in my Ecology course at Georgia Tech. Students find this very motivating – attendance was a lot higher in the semester when I used this approach than it was in previous semesters. A disadvantage of this approach is that you have to do more to manage the clickers. There will always be a student who accidentally took her roommate’s clicker, or whose clicker battery died that morning, or whatever. When that happens, they will come to you. I tried to avoid having this be a major issue by making it so that they got full clicker credit if they answered a certain percentage of the clicker questions – say, 90%. Then they could have a few days where they forgot their clicker, the battery died, or whatever, and it wouldn’t affect their grade. I think that reduced their stress a lot.

3. Incorporate clickers into the grading scheme, with a subset of points awarded simply for participating, but full credit given only if they correctly answer the question. An advantage of this is that it makes it the most likely that students are fully engaged and trying their best on the questions. A downside is that it increases the stress level associated with the clickers. It also might change the type of question you want to ask. If credit is just linked with participation, it’s okay to use clickers to help students realize what they don’t know, and to ask really hard questions that almost no one gets correct. But if they are graded, students will get grumpy in a hurry if the questions are too hard.

4. Use clickers to give in class quizzes or exams, with no points for participation. I’ve only done this a couple of times, and only in my Ecology class at Georgia Tech (where, for the most part, I followed model 2 above). In this case, it was easy to do because the clicker system at GT allowed students to enter numerical answers, too, so I could have them do problems and enter their answers. But this is something I used pretty sparingly.

One major potential issue with 2-4 is the issue of cheating. When I first sat in a class to observe how clickers worked, I sat in the back row. The student sitting next to me apparently didn’t realize I was a faculty member, and pulled out three clickers. He proceeded to answer each question on all three clickers. Clearly that is not the goal of clickers! (And, yes, the student was completely shocked when I identified myself as a faculty member at the end of the class and took the clickers from him so that we could figure out whose they were and deal with it properly.)

One thing I did to try to discourage that behavior is to occasionally give a written pop quiz in class after I gave a clicker question, where they had to hand it in in person to me or a TA at the end of class. I told students I would do this at the beginning of the semester, so it’s not like I was being super sneaky. My hope was that it would help keep honest students honest. It appeared to work, because the semester I did that, I never had a student who had answered a clicker question but wasn’t there to turn in an exam. Clearly this approach isn’t perfect, and it won’t work in every type of class, but it was one way to try to combat the problem. If readers have other thoughts on how to deal with this problem, I would love to hear about them in the comments.

That rounds out my thoughts on clickers for now. Overall, I remain supportive of their use, and, as I said at the beginning, I plan on continuing to use them in lecture classes in the future.

Are any of you using clickers for the first time this semester? If so, how is it going?

4 thoughts on “Why I Use Clickers, Part 2

  1. Pingback: A Question About the Death of the Lecutre | Mike the Mad Biologist

  2. Pingback: Friday links: science funding and the “decline effect”, ecology in China, Finnish bus stations (yes, really), and more | Dynamic Ecology

  3. Pingback: Class activities for upper-level courses: blog posts, debates, critiques of media coverage, and more! | Dynamic Ecology

  4. Pingback: Teaching Tuesday: teaching tools ecologists find effective | Small Pond Science

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