Saturday, January 10, 2009

Update on Clickers in the Classroom

Reading the story reproduced below from the Chronicle of Higher Education reminded me that I was going to report on my experience with using clicker technology in my Advanced Legal Research class during the fall 2008 semester. According to the author of the article, Ruth Hammond, "College students who use wireless handheld devices called 'clickers' to register answer to instructors' questions during lectures are more likely to give correct responses after discussion with their peers ... " Hammond is reporting on a new study published in the January 2, 2009 issue of Science (vol. 323, no. 5910, p. 122-24). It is unclear, however, whether the clicker technology itself is responsible for the students' improved performance, or whether it is the discussion with classmates that makes the difference.

Because I have not yet seen my students' evaluations of the Advanced Legal Research course, I have no formal, written feedback on their reaction to the clickers. However, I do know anecdotally that some students really enjoyed the clicker exercises and thought that they reinforced the material that I had presented. Others, however, particularly non-traditional students, felt that the clicker exercises were a distraction. My own experience with the clickers was that it is harder than I thought to craft exercises that will challenge the students but not frustrate them. My lack of formal training in educational theory became painfully obvious to me as the semester went along. I did find that the exercises sparked a lot of classroom discussion, which can be hard to do in a research course, and seemed to create some energy in the classroom. I had applied for promotion to full professor last fall and was going through that process (classroom visits by faculty colleagues and written evaluations of my teaching, etc.). Visitors to the class had positive impressions about my use of the clickers and the exercises that I created, which was gratifying. However, I have decided to scale back their use considerably during the second semester. I am going to use clickers for a diagnostic exercise during the first week of the semester (I want to see what level the class is at), and then create review exercises as we finish each unit. This will be a departure from opening each class with a clicker exercise as I did last semester. The reason for scaling back the use of clickers is that the exercises took so much time (at least half an hour of each class) that I was unable to get through the syllabus, and I ended up rushing through important subjects such as administrative law research. However, I now have a greater comfort level with the clicker technology and think I have learned something about writing questions that will allow me to see whether the students have mastered the subject matter of a unit of the course before moving on to a new subject. I'll report back in the spring on how this approach works.

Learning With 'Clickers' Gets Better After Peer Discussions
College students who use wireless handheld devices called “clickers” to register answers to instructors’ questions during lectures are more likely to give correct responses after discussion with their peers, studies have found. But, researchers wondered, were students improving merely because they copied the answers of fellow students? Or had they actually gained a greater understanding of the material?

The findings of a new study published in the latest issue of Science suggest that improvement after peer discussion reflects real learning. And, surprisingly, students “don’t even need somebody who knows the right answer” in their discussion group in order to do better, says Michelle K. Smith, a research associate in biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder who led the study.

Three hundred and fifty students in a genetics course were first asked to answer a thought-provoking multiple-choice question individually, using a clicker. They were then invited to discuss that question with their neighbors, after which they answered it again. Next, they answered, individually, a second question that required applying the same principles needed to solve the first one.

When students respond to questions using clickers, generally their responses are displayed on a projection screen in the classroom, so instructors can highlight the correct answer. But for this study, the responses to the first question and the right answer were not shown until after students had answered the second question.

On average, the students improved when answering the first question for the second time, from 51 percent correct to 68 percent. But they improved even more when they answered the new, similar question, with 72 percent getting the answer correct. Because the second question was never discussed in peer groups, it could not be answered by copying the response of another student. So the higher rate of success suggests that giving students the opportunity to talk to one another and practice their cognitive skills makes them more prepared to analyze problems, Ms. Smith says.

Although the same peer-discussion method evaluated in the study could be put in place without clickers, students enjoy using the device as long as they’re given challenging questions, Ms. Smith says.

The device is used in college classrooms across the country, especially in large lecture courses in the hard sciences and mathematics, says Jane E. Caldwell, a biology instructor at West Virginia University who has published a paper in CBE—Life Sciences Education reviewing research on clickers. She says the new paper in Science “made a great stride in pinning down the cause of improvement in performance,” showing it was not just the result of “persuasion by bright students that happened to be sitting nearby.”—Ruth Hammond

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