Does Teaching with Clickers Foster Student Participation?

University of British Columbia professor of earth and ocean sciences Roland Stull recently gave his popular course on the science of storms a clicker makeover.  Persuaded by research from Carl Wieman’s Science Education Initiative at UBC, he now structures his class sessions around conceptual understanding clicker questions, using a version of the standard peer instruction technique.  Stull has his students read their textbook and respond to online quiz questions the night before class.  He has a TA analyze their answers for common areas of confusion, then adjusts his plans for class to address those areas.  Stull notes a variety of benefits to this teaching approach:

“It’s a lot more fun for me to teach the class,” Stull said in an interview in his UBC office. “Not only are the students interacting with themselves, but they are much more willing to ask me questions during class.”

The Georgia Straight article about Stull’s use of clickers quotes Alan Webb, a University of Waterloo accounting professor who published a study ostensibly showing that teaching with clickers actually decreases student participation in class.  However, as I noted in my review of this study, what Webb actually showed was that indicating the correct answer to a clicker questions prior to class discussion of the question decreases student participation.

At the University of Buffalo School of Dentistry, instructors John Maggio and Chester Gary have students respond to questions during class using their laptops as response devices.  The school requires students to have laptops so they can access electronic textbooks, so using “virtual clicker” software on student laptops makes sense.  Maggio finds that his students have rather short attention spans, so he uses clicker questions to keep them engaged during his 90-minute classes, asking as many as twelve questions per class.  The frequent questions and the fact that some are graded on accuracy (not just effort) keep his students from using their laptops to distract themselves.

Just like Roland Stull at UBC, John Maggio says that his clicker questions have increased participation in his class:

“They raise their hands much more often, they’re discussing things much more, they’re participating more than they ever have,” [Maggio] says, noting that his classes featured very little discussion or debate before the introduction of the audience-response technology.

One of the criticisms I often hear about teaching with clickers is that doing so gives shy students an excuse not to summon the courage to speak out in class.  These two news articles would indicate that’s not the case, after all.

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