One of the most difficult things to do when teaching is getting students to engage with each other about the material in meaningful ways that move the needle of their understanding or skill-set. Instructors of small classes and large classes alike face this challenge everyday. It’s not easy to craft activity lessons that succeed in keeping students focused, on-topic, while connecting in small groups or class-wide discussion. We know that active, engaged inquiry, conversations and debates are exactly what’s required for students to retain information and grasp concepts and theories. When it works, and students are buzzing about the lesson, teachers may stand back for a moment and think, YES!
So, how to get that buzz going? There are so many ways. Clickers are one strategy that has worked for me.
Oddly enough, clickers are at base a 1-way tech tool. Teacher posts poll, students click-in. There’s no automated two-way feedback loop. And for that reason some faculty have criticized my decision to adopt clickers, admonishing me for reducing student engagement to a remote-controlled-yes/no function. I usually invite such naysayers to sit in on one of my classes, to see that 1-way polling is not the end of the story. It’s what happens next that is really exciting.
The buzz! It’s the one thing other clickerprofs warned me about: as soon as you open a poll, and again when you display the results, students are going to start talking to each other about the question. Get ready for the buzz! Very good advice, and it proved true of course on my first day using student response systems with a class of 300. For a teacher who has struggled for years to get students talking, this instant response was very energizing, very fun.
There are many strategies to use with clickers designed to keep students talking-on-task with each other. For example:
The easiest method is the “turn to your neighbor” example, wherein with preliminary results collected but not yet displayed on the screen, profs ask students to check in with the person seated beside them, to compare answers and justifications. According to Eric Mazur, the “turn to your neighbor and see if you can convince one another of the correct choice” method is effective because it supports students to engage in active learning and questioning and shifts the focus from the professor “teaching” the material.
The think-pair-share method also works wonders with clickers, with voting results displayed or not, asking students to check in with each other about their responses, then re-polling always results in more on-task buzz. This method is effective because “through this exercise, students get a chance to work through the question, and defend their position,” to cite Brian Young from Penn State (“Teaching With Clickers: Think Pair Share“)
Asking prediction questions is another conversation-generating technique that has worked well for me. As Derek Bruff observes, prediction questions are effective “since they allow students to commit to their predictions and compare their predictions to those of their peers. Then discussion of the incorrect answer choices provides an opportunity to deal with misconceptions.” Prediction questions do double duty, as “students become more interested in a demonstration when they have first committed to a prediction via a clicker question,” to borrow an insight from University of California at Santa Barbara’s comprehensive list of clicker question types. (“12 Ways UCSB Professors Are Using Clickers“)
I also use clickers to help students prepare for the exam (<– link opens PDF), by running multiple choice question polls drawn from my exam question bank. Whether polls are a quiz on the homework or asking students to recall a lecture point, in my experience these types of questions inspire a lot of quiet contemplation as the results are collected, then great whoops and sighs as results are revealed. Using clickers to help students with exam prep has been shown to increase outcomes and student engagement (<–link opens Word doc).
Clickers, a one-way technology, also work to provide timely feedback and summative assessment, letting students know whether they are “getting” the material. As one student commented, “when the prof asks a clicker question in class and you don’t know what the heck he’s even talking about, it helps you figure out what you need to do, so you can do better on the test, instead of like not finding out until the day of the exam that you don’t get it.”
The bottom line is that this simple technology, though not a pedagogical panacea, can help teachers create an active and engaged learning experience. They may transmit a one-way signal, but skilled clicker profs can use these gadgets to inspire a peer-to-peer information flow and create a cohesive, connected classroom.