Clickers, Private Universes, and Agile Teaching

There’s a lively discussion happening on the POD Network listserv this week on teaching large classes. The discussion detoured into a discussion of teaching with clickers. In responding to one of these posts, Louis Schmier wrote:

“Well, Ron, clickers might get feedback and active and collaborative involvement, but learning? Technology is a tool, not a panecea. The basic problem with large class as Ron defines it, is that it violates the basic Aristotelian tenet of KNOWING those in your audience and tailoring yourself so that those in the audience get it, understand it, and retain it.”

This comment struck me as interesting, so I responded to it on the listserv. I’m including my response here on the blog (with a couple of extra links for clarity), in case those not on the listserv find it helpful.

Anton [Tolman] has responded very eloquently to Louis’ concerns about classroom response systems, but I can’t resist weighing in myself. First, there’s plenty of evidence that “active and collaborative involvement” often leads to student learning, so if clickers are indeed fostering more student engagement during class, that sets the stage for more student learning.

And as for the idea of “KNOWING those in your audience and tailoring yourself so that those in the audience get it, understand it, and retain it,” once you get past 15-20 students, it becomes very difficult to do those two things—assessing your students’ learning during class and practicing “agile teaching” by responding to what you find out about their learning on the fly–without a tool like a classroom response system. In fact, these are two teaching tasks that clickers are incredibly well-suited to support.

Imagine you have a single student in your office asking for help in your course. It’s relatively easy to “diagnose” that student and get a sense of what the student understands and doesn’t understand, then to tailor some one-on-one instruction to help the student resolve his or her misunderstandings. If you have 2-3 students in an office hour setting, you can probably do the same thing, although you’re already juggling 2-3 different “private universes” at this point, which can be challenging.

When you move to the “small” class setting, say, 8-10 students, you now have 8-10 “private universes” to try to uncover and respond to. Sure, there could be some similarities among your students in terms of their prior experiences, misunderstandings, and perspectives on course material, but you’ve still got 8-10 different students to build your learning environment in response to. Given 50 or 75 minutes and plenty of discussion, you’ve got a good shot at this, however.

Now move to a bigger class, say 15-20 students. At this point, it’s tough to have enough “air time” for all the students during class. This makes the juggling of “private universes” very challenging. Small group discussions can help (outsourcing some of this work to the students themselves), as can pre-class assignments. But during class, you’ve got quite a task if you want to be responsive to all your students’ various learning needs.

(Here you have my answer to Jeanette [McDonald]’s question. When is large large? I would say 15-20 students. At that point the dynamics shift in very significant ways.)

Now imagine more students—30, 50, 100, or 500. The challenge of responding to that many unique “private universes” is truly daunting! You have to start making some assumptions about commonalities among those private universes. Clickers are wonderful tools for getting a sense of the validity of those assumptions! You pose a multiple-choice question where the answers are crafted to tie into what you suppose are common understandings (correct or not) and perceptions about the topic at hand, you have the students think about (and maybe discuss in small groups) the question, then you poll them and find out which of the understandings and perceptions are *really* the most common.

The resulting bar chart tells you how to spend the next 5-20 minutes of class time: responding to the student views of the topic that are most common. This “agile teaching” allows you to make the best use of limited class time by responding to as many “private universes” as you can in the time available.

Some caveats: You could miss a very common student understanding or perspective completely when you write your clicker question! The more experience you have with the topic and with students learning about the topic, the less likely this is to happen, but it’s still something to watch out for. That’s why it’s helpful to have some kind of classwide discussion about the question, giving students whose views aren’t represented in the bar chart a chance to share.

You also won’t get to the “long tail” of student views this way. What about the two students in a class of 100 who voted for option D? Will you have time to address that minority view? Maybe not during class, but perhaps after class in some fashion.

I’m also assuming here that you’re teaching a large class! The debate over whether or not classes should have 100 students is secondary to my point here. My point is that *given* a large class, a classroom response system is an excellent tool for understanding one’s students (in the aggregate) and tailoring one’s instruction to one’s students.

Lots more on these ideas (with examples from real classrooms!) in the “agile teaching” category on my blog.

The discussion on the listerv continued productively from here. It’s worth checking out.

Image: “O is for Occipital Lobe” by Flickr user illuminaut / Creative Commons licensed

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