Teaching with Clickers in Philosophy

Although relatively few instructors in the humanities use clickers, if there’s one discipline in the humanities where clickers are starting to get some traction, it would be philosophy. I interviewed a couple of philosophy faculty members for my book (including Ron McClamrock of SUNY-Albany), and I’ve recently found a few online resources for using clickers in philosophy, listed below.

Why the particular interest in clickers among philosophy instructors? Perhaps it’s because some teach courses in logic, and these courses are often more like math courses (where clickers are more mainstream) than typical humanities courses. Perhaps it’s because some philosophy instructors teach relatively large classes–larger than is typical in English and language instruction, certainly–and clickers excel in large classes. However, I suspect the primary reason clickers have been adopted in philosophy is because philosophy instructors like to ask what I call “student perspective questions” in my book. These opinion and experience questions work beautifully in ethics courses, and I imagine they work well in other philosophy courses, as well.

On the Teaching Philosophy 101 site, John Immerwahr provides an introduction to teaching with clickers in philosophy courses.  He suggests a few uses of clickers that are of particular use in teaching philosophy.  For instance, he suggests asking students a few opinion questions at the beginning of a unit to surface their perspectives on the topic, helping them have a great stake in the discussion that follows.  He also suggests asking the same questions before and after a topic is discussed as a way to show students that “serious discussion of issues actually matters to how people think (a point which they sometimes don’t get initially).”

Immerwahr also stresses a point about clickers that is sometimes subtle: They can be used to generate “meta-conversations,” as he calls them.

Interestingly, the wording of the questions themselves often creates prompts for discussion. Student like to discuss why the class voted as it did, and people will sometimes make interesting distinctions (e.g., a student might say “If the question has said ‘can’ make a difference instead of ‘will’ make a difference, I would have voted differently,” which can then lead into another interesting discussion).

In my talks on teaching with clickers, I’ll often mention that the results display itself can generate useful discussion.  Asking students why the class voted as it did can often lead to productive discussions of assumptions students make about themselves and each other.

Immerwahr’s example also reminds me of another point I often make, that the wording on clicker questions need not be as precise as the wording on exam questions.  One reason is that if the question isn’t worded exactly right, an instructor can still make it work during the discussion of the question.  Another is that clicker questions can be modified and asked again based on student comments during discussion.  In Immerwahr’s example, for instance, the instructor could easily change “will” to “can” in the question and re-poll the students.

For an expanded version of Immerwahr’s introduction to clickers, read his Teaching Philosophy article, “Engaging the ‘Thumb Generation’ with Clickers.”  The article includes more discussion of the clicker uses mentioned above, as well as other uses, and features several sample questions.

And for even more resources on using clickers in philosophy instruction, visit the Peer Instruction in the Humanities project out of Monash University in Australia.  This site features a step-by-step guide to PI, advice on designing a PI lecture, a description of a sample PI lecture, examples of various types of clicker questions appropriate for this teaching context, and even a question bank organized by topic!  I’m very glad to know that there’s a humanities clicker question bank out there to complement existing question banks in the sciences.

Image: “Portrait of Erasmus Desiderius“, Andreas Praefcke, Wikimedia Commons

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