Teaching Math with Clickers: Preservice Teachers, Competitive Students, & Visual Thinking

Continuing my reports from the contributed paper session on teaching with clickers I helped coordinate at the Joint Mathematics Meetings back in January…

“Preservice Elementary Teachers’ Perceptions of Clicker Use in their College Mathematics Course,” Travis K. Miller, Millersville University of Pennsylvania [Slides]

In my last post, I mentioned that Janet White first used clickers in her courses for pre-service teachers at Millersville University of Pennsylvania. Another speaker in the contributed paper session back in January was her colleague, Travis Miller, who shared results of a student survey he conducted in the pre-service teacher course he taught. Travis used clickers for only six lessons during that course in each of the four sections he was teaching. His clicker questions weren’t graded, and he followed the “classic” peer instruction model each time, having students vote individually, then discuss the question in small groups, then vote again.

Travis’ students overwhelmingly (96%) liked using clickers in the course. Travis mentioned that there are very few things he does as a teacher that are as uniformly popular with his students! Almost as many students (89%) believed that the clicker activities helped them learn the material in those six lessons. Travis drilled down on this, asking students to say why the clickers were useful. The number one answer (59% of students) was that the clicker questions provided students with an opportunity to discuss and think about course content. The number two answer (23%) was that the clickers provided a sense of accountability and involvement.

Travis didn’t stop there, either. He asked his students which topics they understood better because of the clicker activities. Of the six topics that Travis addressed using clickers, sets and Venn diagrams was cited by 52% of the students as the one that most benefited from clickers. Numeration / base arithmetic was a distant second with 15%, and deductive reasoning came in third with 13%. When sharing these data, Travis floated a very interesting hypothesis. He wondered if the fact that the number one topic (sets and Venn diagrams) was a visual one led to the students selecting it as most benefited by clicker questions. I’m a big fan of visual thinking, so this comment caught my attention. Is there something special about peer instruction with clickers and visual thinking?  I’d appreciate your thoughts in the comments.

Travis’ other interesting hypothesis was that his more competitive students liked the competitive aspects of clickers (being the first to answer, answering correctly more frequently than other students, and so on), while the non-competitive students didn’t mind those aspects since they were essentially opt-in. That is, the students who didn’t want to compete could still participate fully with the peer instruction and voting process without feeling any pressure to treat it like a game. Graham, Tripp, Seawright, & Joeckel (2007) found that most students who are hesitant to participate in class liked clickers as well as those who were fine with participating, but I don’t think I’ve seen any research that compared competitive students with non-competitive students. That would make for an interesting research question.

Travis also taught some sections of his pre-service teacher course without using clickers, and he surveyed students in these sections about the potential advantages and drawbacks of using clickers. What concerns did they have about using clickers? They worried about the cost of the devices, that clickers weren’t necessary in small classes, that clicker activities take up too much class time, and that the technology might not be reliable. I found it interesting that these are among the common concerns of faculty members not already using clickers, too!

Image: “Happy Pi Day!” by Flickr user Mykl Roventine / Creative Commons licensed

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