Clickers? Excuse me: are we training dogs here?

clickerYou know I can’t go too many days without getting my technophobia on, kids!  Check out the new tag I’ve added here, “technoskepticism.”  I considered “technophobia,” but I don’t fear new technology–I just think that much of it is a waste of my time.  I remain open to the possibility that someday, somewhere some new technology will really excite me instead of cause me to slap my forehead and ask, “who falls for this $hit?”  And, you may not want to be reminded of this, but once upon a time 8-track tapes were the I-Pod of 1974, and Commodore 64s were the Facebook of 1982.

So–clickers.  Have you used them in class?  What kinds of advantages do you think they bring to a classroom in the humanities in particular?  I’ve been invited to attend a workshop on them, and I’m half tempted, given the ridiculous 123-seat survey course I’m scheduled to teach in the fall.  How many annoying clicker questions do you need to write for a 50-minute lecture?  (“In her later reclusive years, Emily Dickinson left her home a) every day, b) when the church bells of Amherst rang out, c) to refresh her nosegay when lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d , or d) never.”)

I heard this fairly depressing report on them on NPR yesterday, and I can’t help thinking that all of the problems teachers may experience with not knowing if students are getting anything out of lectures could be solved by the old-fashioned technology used by top-notch prep schools and liberal arts colleges throughout history:  classes small enough (say, up to 40) where professors know the students’ names and can gauge student interest and throw out provocative questions to keep student attention.  (By the way, check out the comment to the NPR story from a Baa Ram U. student who proclaims that clickers are “a huge waste of time!”  Ha!)

But, as I have asked here before, who will pay for it–that is, the technology of small classes we all know works.  I guess it’s just so much cooler to pretend that there’s an easy high-tech fix to a problem that’s as old as teaching itself.  Yeah, let’s buy a bunch of equipment that will be obsolete in another five years instead of hiring more professors who will stick around for 25-35 years!  I am interested in hearing your experiences of working with this technology, and I may yet attend that workshop next week, but for now, in case you can’t tell, I’m a little skeptical.

0 thoughts on “Clickers? Excuse me: are we training dogs here?

  1. I think the advantages or benefits that the clickers have in the humanities are effectively the same as in the sciences, or any area, for that matter. So long as they are used effectively. Clickers are tools, and unless you are properly trained in how to use the tool, the benefits and advantages may not be known. If used incorrectly, the tool will hinder the learning experience.

    You should NOT use clickers simply for the sake of using them. Many people who left comments, who found them to be ‘useful,’ also made the claim that the tool works for engaging students.

    Clickers, by their very nature, are Audience Response Systems. They are used to allow your audience (your students) to respond to your lecture, all in real time. In effect, your students can have a complete dialog with you. Although not always verbal, since the initial response is via the clicker, it provides an excellent starting point for group or class discussions.

    In fact, a proven effective use (in SEVERAL disciplines) pairs the clicker with peer instruction. There is much literature out there showing that, if used correctly, the students will not only just retain the information during class time, but the final exam will increase by a full letter grade.

    Bottom line: the clickers are only an effective tool if the teacher / professor incorporating them into a course does so effectively.


  2. I’m a little late to this discussion, having just found it on a Google blog search, but I’ll agree with Joseph Axenroth and say that classroom response systems can be very effective tools for generating personal reflection, small-group discussion, and classwide discussion in classes both large and small, in the sciences as well as in the humanities.

    Attending a lecture and taking notes works very well for some students, particularly the students who go on to careers in academia. They’re able to assimilate and process the information shared in the lecture as it comes to them and/or after class as they review their notes. Many students, however, benefit from more active processing of information during classtime, when their classmates and their instructors are available to help them process.

    A well-crafted clicker question can go a long way in helping students make sense of new information during class. Let’s say you pose a multiple-choice question for which there is no single correct answer but for which there are perhaps more justifiable answers and less justifiable answers. Something like “Which of the following motivations best explains so-and-so’s actions in such-and-such novel?” Instead of posing this question, hoping that all your students take a moment to think about it, then hearing from the handful of students who have the time and courage to share a response, suppose you ask all of your students to respond to it using their clickers.

    Sure, some students might just press a button, but since you’re using the clickers, you communicate a message to the students that you really do want to hear from all of them, not just the ones who raise their hands. Not only that, you’re giving each student a chance to consider the question, weigh arguments for and against each answer choice, and commit to what s/he thinks is the best answer–all before s/he hears what the other students think about the question.

    All students are thus given a chance to respond independently to the question, which helps prepare them to engage more seriously with any discussion (small-group or classwide) of the question that follows. They’ve had time to formulate something to contribute to that discussion, and they’re more invested in the topic at hand since they’ve had to commit to an answer.

    Furthermore, since their responses can be tracked, you can hold them accountable for their participation, which motivates them to participate. And since their responses aren’t identified to their peers, it creates a safer environment for risk-taking, since many students are hesitant to appear looking ignorant in front of their peers by volunteering a wrong answer.

    The bar chart showing the distribution of responses gives you a quick sense of how your students are approaching the question at hand, and you can then respond to those results to guide the discussion in productive ways. For instance, if one of the options is a reasonable one, but wasn’t selected by many students, you can play devil’s advocate and help them reconsider that option.

    Also, when multiple answers are popular, the bar chart shows students (a) that they’re not alone in their confusion and (b) that the question is one worth considering since their peers have such different views of it. This, too, can motivate students to participate in subsequent discussions.

    And since students expect multiple-choice questions to have single correct answers (and, in fact, often expect every task or challenge to have a single correct answer, one that should be memorized and regurgitated on a test), when you tell them that the clicker question you’ve been discussing with them doesn’t have a single correct answer, you’re creating conditions that can have a very positive impact on their intellectual development!

    I could go on, but I hope that some of the pedagogical benefits of classroom response systems are starting to become clear. These systems are popular in the natural and social sciences, but I would argue they have great potential for helping to create productive classroom dynamics in the humanities, particularly through the use of questions without single correct answers.

    As Joseph Axenroth said, the technology is just a tool. A chalkboard is a tool, too, one that can be used in pedagogically productive ways or in pedagogically unproductive ways. As noted above, some of the criticisms of clickers stem from the less than ideal ways some universities and colleges relate to instructional technologies. That certainly occurs, which is why it’s important to implement clickers in sensible ways, opening up the door to the pedagogical benefits I’ve mentioned here.

    Also, I’ll point out that your basic clicker runs about $20-25, not $60. Most of the systems available now are extremely fast, reliable, and easy to use. There are also systems that allow students to submit their responses via text-messaging or the Web, so students can use existing devices (cell phones, laptops) instead of clickers. So there are options for implementing the technology sensibly.


  3. Pingback: Why Clickers?

  4. Pingback: Geeky Mom » Blog Archive » Clickers!

  5. Internet, television, radio, electric lights, antibiotics. Tools for fools. If most of you posters had it your way we would still be getting all of our information from library books selected via the Dewey Decimal system. “Clicker hate” is what I call it. Wanna teach these kids something? Have them actually tuned in during your next class- and clickers will do it when used properly. These students aren’t fundamentally different than we were at their age, but their modes of communication are totally different. Lecturing every day and throwing out “thought provoking questions” might work in a class debate on abortion, or the 2nd amendment, but it won’t work everywhere… and lecturing from “on high” comes off as arrogant at least as often as clickers dumb down the classroom.


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