Why Clickers?

I just discovered a blog post by Ann M. Little, a historian at Colorado State University, expressing a fair amount of skepticism about the use of classroom response systems in humanities courses.  There was even greater skepticism in the 50 comments her post received.  Since most of the comments seem to have been made by teachers with no experience using clickers, I thought I would chime in with some reasons why clickers can work very well in college classrooms, particularly humanities classrooms.  I had a lot to say, and, since I’m often asked “Why clickers?” I thought I would reproduce my comments here.

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *