The Clicker Clique

This past Winter, I taught an Intro Stats course at Bates and I used clickers (classroom response systems) for the first time. In this post, I will write a bit about my personal experience using this technology, some ideas for how to use it for other classes, and why you might even want to do that in the first place. Hopefully, this will help you decide if you want to become part of this clique!

There are many reasons to use clickers, but the most salient (to me) are the following:

  1. Instant feedback. Clicker questions are a good way to assess whether students are understanding a concept you’ve introduced. For example, in my class, every time I defined something (like, say, normal distributions), I would then ask a conceptual question to gauge their basic understanding (like show the graphs of a few distributions and ask which one is normal). But you can also use this as a polling system. For example, my friend Elizabeth Thoren, at UCSB, sometimes uses a clicker question at the beginning of class to check how students felt about their discussion problems. For example, a slide could say: “How did you feel about yesterday’s phase portrait discussion problems? A) Phase portraits are a piece of cake. B) I had some trouble in discussion yesterday, but after working on them at home I feel like I get it. C) I had phase portrait nightmares! Please give us until Friday.”
  2. Self-assessment. The flip-side of the previous item is that THEY also get to see whether they are understanding a particular topic. In my Stats class there were some very interesting discussions between students who answered a question correctly and those who answered incorrectly. I felt like in the end the students were much more certain of the answer than if I had just given it to them (which is not so surprising, I guess.)
  3. Evaluation. I didn’t do this in my Stats class because I was afraid of triggering their math anxieties if I made the answers count for points. I mainly just recorded whether they had participated or not. But I know people who will assign a number of points for correct answers, another (lower) amount for incorrect but still sort of reasonable answers, and then no points for the unreasonable answers. At least this gets them to do the reading before class (if there is one), pay attention during class, and not just always press the A button (which is something I suspect some of my students did at the end of the semester.) You can also have an in-class quiz this way, and get the grades right away.
  4. Increase participation in large classes. I always like to lead interactive classes and to encourage participation. This is somewhat harder to do when your classroom size becomes relatively large (and I think any class with 40+ students is difficult to make interactive.) Since the Intro Stats course we teach  is a popular class (it satisfies a quantitative requirement), it tends to be over-enrolled. So this way, everybody’s voice was heard (or clicked), and especially the students with math anxiety could anonymously participate as well (since usually the confident or loud ones dominate class discussions).

I used clickers only once, but I can see them being useful in may other intro-level and upper-level math courses. In fact, I have many friends and colleagues who use clickers in class. Here are a few examples:

  1. Intro Stats. Hey, I know I already mentioned this, but I can’t stress how useful this was for me and my students. First of all, there are a lot of concepts and definitions to talk about, and it’s really good to be able to see if they understand what you’re saying. Also, in many intro classes I worry that they might get bored (they are not always fans of mathematics) or confused (they don’t always have a strong background in mathematics) and then stop paying attention. This gives them something to do and a way to feel engaged with what’s going on in the class.
  2. Linear Algebra and Differential Equations. Elizabeth (mentioned above) taught a class at UCSB that combines both ODEs and Linear Algebra. She actually has taught the class with and without clickers and she felt much more connected to the students in the clicker-based class. Mainly, because she could respond to their needs more immediately. It seems like the students in the clicker-based class were also much happier.
  3. Proof courses. Robert Talbert wrote a very interesting blog post in September on using clickers for peer review of proofs (his Chronicle of Higher Ed blog, Casting Out Nines, usually talks about using technology in the classroom). In short, he has them present proofs to the class, and with the clickers the other students rate the proof in three categories, on a scale of 1 to 4. The categories are: mathematical correctness, clarity of writing, and logical soundness. This must surely generate some interesting class discussions and is yet another way to evaluate proofs (the students decide how many points each person gets in his or her presentation). I think this would be particularly useful for an introduction to proofs class.
  4. Giving talks about using clickers. I recently gave a talk to my department about my experience teaching Stats. I thought a good way to get them to see how clickers were used in the class was to have everyone use clickers themselves! It definitely made the talk much more entertaining.

There is one complication that might arise from using clickers: students have to buy yet another thing for their class (textbooks are expensive enough!). The clickers Bates uses (we use the same system for all clicker based courses at the college) cost about $20 each. Some of my students shared their clicker with someone in another section. I imagine soon enough people will be able to use their smartphones for this (maybe they already are!), but I guess those are even more expensive.

Some people have asked if it takes too much time to prepare for a class like this. I didn’t think so. I mean, sure, I wrote slides for my lectures for the first time ever, and it took a while to get a hang of that. I also had to think of good clicker questions (this is probably the part that could be improved, most of my questions were too basic or conceptual compared to what I later assigned for homework). But now I have my lectures and clicker questions written up in case I ever teach this class again.

Does anyone out there use this type of technology in their classroom? Any other ideas or suggestions? Any reservations? Please, share your thoughts in the comments below!


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5 Responses to The Clicker Clique

  1. Avatar Allison Gilmore says:

    I used clickers in a Calculus 1 class at Columbia a few years ago. I wrote up a short how-to along with some thoughts about my experience with clickers here:

  2. Avatar Robert Talbert says:

    Just wanted to say thanks for the reference to my blog post.

    Also, to address the issue of clickers being one more thing for students to purchase, here at Grand Valley State University students rent the clickers from the IT department. They sign a contract on the first day of class verifying that they have given the clickers and that they agree to return them on the last day of class. If they fail to return them on the last day, their student accounts are charged $30 to cover the cost of the device. Otherwise the clickers are no cost to the students. (But they do have to remember to bring them to class!)

    By having students sign the contracts, the IT department is also able to make up a participant list for me to use in TurningPoint Anywhere, which saves me about a half hour of time for each course. Overall I think this is a pretty elegant and painless way to handle things.

  3. Avatar Sonja Mitchell says:

    Great videos from here at UCSB with lots of creative ways to use the clickers (including Math Prof Daryl Cooper’s ideas – he uses them for huge lecture classes):

  4. Avatar David Clark says:

    We use iClickers here at Michigan Tech. It’s extremely easy to set them up for anonymous use, and it works great — just as you’ve described. As soon as you want to link a clicker to each individual student, things get a bit tougher. You have to go through a “registration” process for the classroom, which can be a bit of a hassle and takes a lot of time. It also makes it harder to loan clickers to students who forgot theirs, since they have to be registered and then un-registered — the same goes for students sharing clickers between classes.

    Overall, for anonymous use, they’re awesome. For individual use, they’re much harder to deal with.

  5. Avatar Stella says:

    Instant feedback feature of clickers is the best one.

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