Teaching Math with Clickers: I Liked Getting the Wrong Answer Anonymously

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

“Using Personal Response Systems (Clickers) in Liberal Arts Mathematics Courses to Support a Lecture Format,” Janet A. White, Millersville University of Pennsylvania [Slides]

Just like Jean McGivney-Burelle and Kimberly Burch, Janet White shared her experiences teaching with clickers in a “liberal arts” mathematics course taken by non-majors. Unlike Jean and Kimberly, who teach relatively small sections of this kind of course, Janet teaches in a large lecture hall with 75 students per section. Janet had used clickers in courses for pre-service math teachers in the past and found them useful, so when it was her turn to teach this larger course, she decided to use them again. A classroom response system was hardly the only technology Janet used in this course: She also had students complete online homework and quizzes and she annotated her PowerPoint lecture slides using an Interwrite Mobi.

Janet used clickers on a daily basis in her course, usually either to assess students’ prior knowledge or to assess their understanding of a topic taught during lecture.  Her questions came from a bank of multiple-choice questions provided by her textbook publisher.  She counted the clicker questions as part of her students’ participation grades, but in a low-stakes manner.  Given her use of the questions as well as the source of the questions, many were on the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, aimed at recall and application of procedural knowledge.  She shared an example of a prior knowledge question that asked students to find the measure of an angle that complements a 36 degree angle.  A slightly harder question aimed at assessment of something taught during the course asked students to identify the cut edge in a given graph (or to assert that the graph had no cut edge).

Student survey results indicated that 85% of Janet’s students who used clickers regularly liked using them, and 71% said that using clickers helped them learn the material.  Students who used clickers regularly during the course ended up with higher grades in the course than students who didn’t, but, of course, that can’t necessarily be attributed to the use of the clickers.  (And since clicker questions were factored in the course grade, students who participated more frequently in clicker questions would almost certainly have higher grades in the course anyway.)

Student comments about the clickers were generally positive.  My favorite one was, “I liked getting the wrong answer anonymously.”  Other comments addressed the usual points that students like about clickers: They liked the interactivity, they liked discussing questions with classmates, they liked seeing where they stood relative to their peers, and they liked the feedback on their own learning the clicker questions provided.  The only significant negative aspect for the students was the cost, about $50 in Janet’s case.

Janet found that having students discuss clicker questions in small groups led to very engaged students, even in the large auditorium environment.  In the future, she plans to write more of her own questions, instead of relying on ones from the textbook’s question bank.  She hopes to write more difficult questions that will generate even more engaged discussion during class.  She’s also hoping to find ways to reduce the technology cost to the students, either by selecting a different vendor or facilitating the resale of clickers after each semester to students taking the course the next semester.

Also, Janet mentioned that the earth science faculty at Millersville are big users of clickers.  Earth science instructors looking for advice on using clickers might want to investigate!

Image: “Recursive Daisy” by Flickr user gadl / Creative Commons licensed

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