Clickers give students incentive to go to class

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      This isn’t your typical science lecture. Around me, more than 80 students talk loudly with each other while a teaching assistant circulates through the room. Roland Stull, a professor of earth and ocean sciences, stands at the front smiling, visibly pleased with the noisy classroom. “Ten seconds!” he yells, and the din of voices gets louder as the students debate the answer to a question displayed by an overhead projector.

      A student beside me explains how to use the clicker, a small device I’ve been given that looks like a remote control with fewer buttons. On her advice—since this second-year course about the science of storms is far beyond my comprehension—I press B, and a tally on the screen showing how many students have voted climbs by one. “And that’s it!” Stull shouts. He presses a button on his own clicker and a graph appears on the screen showing how many students selected each answer. Almost the entire class correctly chose B, so Stull goes over the answer only briefly before launching into the next concept.

      When Stull started using clickers in his classes at the University of British Columbia last year, he joined a growing number of professors who have embraced the teaching aid. Clickers are most commonly found in large university classes, but they’re popping up in all sorts of contexts on postsecondary campuses, and even in elementary and high schools. Students use their clicker to answer questions during class, and software instantly tabulates their answers, immediately giving the teacher an idea of how well they’ve grasped a concept. With this information, teachers are able to adjust their lectures on the fly to address students’ needs.

      Starting in 2008, Stull quit delivering traditional lectures in his popular class “The Meteorology of Storms” in favour of using technology to engage students in the classroom and identify their needs. Now, the evening before each class, students complete a brief quiz on-line based on textbook readings. The next morning, a TA reads the quizzes and provides Stull with a summary detailing which concepts require more instruction. A couple of hours before the class starts, Stull adjusts his lecture according to the report by adding new slides or in-class questions. But what ties it all together, Stull told the Georgia Straight, is the clicker.

      Each 50-minute lecture is designed around clicker questions, and because the questions count for 20 percent of their total mark, every student answers—instead of just the few keeners who would respond in a traditional lecture. “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.”

      Despite the popularity of his course, Stull was persuaded to give it a complete make-over by research conducted by the Nobel Prize–winning physicist Carl Wieman, who left his laboratory at the University of Colorado at Boulder two-and-a-half years ago to head up UBC’s Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative. Wieman’s initial research found that the traditional lecture format can actually worsen students’ understanding of science. He believes that lectures often promote memorization of information and equations—but don’t necessarily lead to students learning how to apply the information. “The biggest burden,” Wieman stated in a lecture at UBC in June 2008, “is that people assume higher education only involves knowing the subject.”¦The humanities wouldn’t think of a lecturer coming into class and simply reading Shakespeare to students. We’re still learning that in physics.”

      One of the remedies Wieman proposes is the clicker. In a study of an undergraduate genetics class, he found that using clicker questions to generate discussion among students during a lecture greatly improves their understanding. “When students answer an in-class conceptual question individually using clickers, discuss it with their neighbors, and then revote on the same question, the percentage of correct answers typically increases,” Wieman and six colleagues reported in a January article in the academic journal Science. “Our results indicate that peer discussion enhances understanding, even when none of the students in a discussion group originally knows the correct answer.”

      But whether this increased understanding actually improves academic performance is up for debate. Alan Webb, an accounting professor at Ontario’s University of Waterloo, compared two of his classes—one that used clickers and one that didn’t—and found that there was no significant difference in exam grades. He believes clickers lead to students being less engaged in the classroom. “One of the vendor claims is greater student engagement, greater participation, willingness to ask questions, and so on would all arise from using the clickers. What we found was the opposite,” Webb said by phone.

      Regardless of whether the clickers improve test marks, students seem to love the technology. When I asked Stull’s class whether they liked using clickers, their responses were overwhelmingly positive. “You actually have to pay attention,” someone at the back yelled, laughing. Others said they felt they were learning more, and that clickers gave them an incentive to come to class. Only two students expressed displeasure with clickers. One worried that skipping over material most of the students understood would leave those who were struggling behind.

      Nevertheless, the effect of the clicker in Stull’s classroom is undeniable. With each clicker question he poses to his students, the room is abuzz with discussion. But when, momentarily reverting to old-fashioned teaching methods, Stull asks a question out loud, prodding his students to speak up, a silence falls over the room as the students stare at him blankly.



      Bob B

      Nov 12, 2009 at 10:37am

      I think how you use the clickers makes a very big difference, I suspect this class described at UBC is very very different than the accounting class in Ontario...


      Sep 8, 2010 at 10:09pm

      This is ridiculous. This whole move to "engage" students and increase grades is a red herring. This is wholly about the professor. Professors have actually said to classes that I've attended that they find teaching more interesting when students ask questions and when their is class dialogue. In fact, this article states that as well.

      To be blunt: Who the hell cares what my professor wants. I just paid $1000 to take a course and I want my professor to be an expert in the field and clear and lucid at dispensing that information. I don't want a game show in my classroom! I don't want to listen to Bobby or Rhupinder give their opinions on the course material. And I don't want the class slowed down because some foreign exchange students have fallen behind (go see the professor at the break or after class).

      Let's stop focusing on what the professors want in their classrooms and start focusing on just providing interesting and robust lecture material to the students. If some professors find that boring, then they ought to consider a move to a new career -- it's not about you!