Clickers turn lectures into conversations

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clickers1. A student clicker; 2. The base station and instructor screen (the base station registers votes and transmits the info to the instructor's computer; 3. The instructor's clicker, which also doubles as a laser pointer and Powerpoint slide controller; 4. The instructor can display vote totals in real time to the class during a lecture.The most important thing, noted genius Albert Einstein once said, “is not to stop questioning.” That’s great advice for any student — or educator. But in a massive college lecture hall, with 300 students, one instructor and a mountain of material to cover in one short semester, the Socratic method of question and answer faces quite a challenge.  

“Up to about 50, even 75, I can know enough of the students by name that I can point at them and get them to speak,” says Chris Biga, Ph.D., assistant teaching professor in the Department of Sociology. When his classes go above that magic number, Biga reaches for the clicker.

Technically known as audience-response systems, clickers are handheld devices, smaller than a TV remote, with a few buttons and sometimes a small LCD screen. Apps also are available for smartphones. More than 40 UAB courses used clickers for the fall 2013 semester.

During almost every lecture, Biga flashes questions on a screen at the front of the room. The students respond using clickers, and the results are instantly displayed as a bar graph for all to see. The data from each day’s class is saved on Biga’s flash drive; when the period is over, the results are uploaded and entered in each student’s record.

“Students love earning points,” Biga said. But the quiz is a means rather than the end. “Clickers allow me to immediately assess the effectiveness of my lectures,” he explains. “When you get more than 30 percent of the class missing a question, that’s a problem that I need to address. I know I’ve nailed it when 100 percent of the students get a question correct.”

The immediate feedback also benefits students, said Leslie Hendon, an instructor in the Department of Biology who teaches the large Human Anatomy and Environmental Science courses. “Students get a good idea of whether they really understand the lecture material — before they have a test where the stakes are a lot higher,” she said. In her courses, the sum total of a semester’s worth of clicker quizzes accounts for 10 percent of the overall grade.

Quiz show

Clickers can especially be valuable in engaging students in a topic, said Ronan O’Beirne, co-director of UAB’s Center for Teaching and Learning, which helps identify new technologies to help faculty teach. For instance, “you can address preconceived notions at the start of a class,” he says. “In an American history course, you could ask students what started the Civil War, then give them two or three options. After they answer, the instructor can move on to explain what really started it. Students get pulled in and start thinking more deeply about the topic.”

Click check
UAB faculty interested in testing clickers in their classrooms can check out a set of 40 units (with the instructor’s base station and all other required gear) from the Center for Teaching and Learning. The center offers regular training sessions on clickers, and instructors can call 934-0455 to arrange a personal session with center staff. To learn more about adopting clickers in the classroom at UAB, see this step-by-step guide from the Center for Teaching and Learning.

Speak your mind

Contrary to a common misperception, clickers encourage class discussion rather than short-circuit it, Hendon said. “I’ve found that they actually improve class engagement. If you aren’t one of the handful of people brave enough to raise your hand and talk in front of 400 people, the clicker gives you a chance to join in the discussion.” Also, wrong answers on each quiz “often spark really good class discussion,” she said.

Unlike a show of hands, the system doesn’t let peer pressure shape each individual’s vote, Biga notes. “It allows people to be wrong and not feel called out,” he said. “I like to use clickers as a stepping stone to discussion. I’ll put up a question that doesn’t have one right answer. Twenty percent of the class might say A and the rest say B. That lets kids see that there are others in the room that think like they do, and they are more willing to talk.

“For me, the most fun is in tackling those wrong answers,” Biga said. “I’ll say, ‘For those who gave an incorrect answer, how did you come up with that?’ That often leads to very productive discussions.”