Classroom clickers: technology for technology’s sake or a helpful teaching tool? Bruce Gillespie, assistant professor in the journalism program at Wilfrid Laurier-Brantford, explains how using "clickers" in large journalism classes can be an effective tool for teaching and learning.
When I first heard about instructors using clickers in the classroom, I scoffed. At best, it sounded like a case of technology for technology’s sake; at worst, it seemed like an extension of the dubious premise that today’s undergraduates have such short attention spans that we need to transform old-fashioned lectures into fun, flashy game shows. Not for me, I thought.
But when faced with the biggest class of my teaching career a couple of years ago, I realized I needed to switch up my usual game plan. I usually teach small, writing-intensive workshops of 20 to 30 students in which it’s relatively easy to engage students in discussion. I wasn’t sure how I would manage to do the same in lecture-style class of about 100 mostly first-year students until a colleague suggested using clickers.
Today, I’m a clicker convert. In the past two years, I’ve used them in a few different ways in a variety of journalism classes, big and small, to good effect. Using clickers has increased student engagement, helped me gauge student learning better and even cut down on some of the time I spend marking. So, in case you’re a journalism instructor who still scoffs at the idea of using clickers in your class, here’s my argument in favour of them.
What are clickers? Clickers are handheld personal response devices. They’re about the same size as a television remote control and allow students to register responses to multiple-choice questions posed by the instructor (some newer versions also allow students to enter a short string of letters and numbers). With an instructor’s clicker, you can collate students’ responses and present them to the class in a matter of seconds.
My point of reference is the i>clicker, created in the late 1990s by four physicists at the University of Illinois, but there are other models on the market, including Turning Point from Turning Technologies. The cost per unit varies by company and institution, but this year, my students’ i>clicker2 units cost about $40.
Are they a gimmick? What won me over to trying clickers was the abundance of peer-reviewed research on their effectiveness as pedagogical tools. Several studies have shown that using them increases student engagement, particularly in larger classes, because of how they allow all students to have a “voice” in discussions, through answering a question or casting a vote, and how they help provide immediate feedback (Smith, Trujillo & Su, 2011). Students also report that using clickers makes classes feel more active and fun and, as such, a more engaging learning environment (Smith, Shon and Santiago, 2011), which is good for students and instructors.
How can I use clickers in a journalism class? I mostly use clickers to administer weekly quizzes—readings-based quizzes for my upper-year writing workshops and current events quizzes for my first-year journalism class. I use PowerPoint or Keynote to pose 10 questions, each on its own slide, and give students about 30 seconds to register their answers (my clicker software runs over top of my presentation software—it’s a small floating box with buttons to open and close the voting session plus a handy stopwatch feature). Once students have logged their answers, I close the voting session and, with the click of a button, open a histogram that shows the distribution of answers. This gives students immediate feedback on how they fared individually and compared to their peers on a question-by-question basis in a relatively anonymous way (which is not the case if you ask students to mark each others’ papers, as I used to do).
The other way I use clickers is to spark a discussion. I’ll prepare a question on a slide (for example: Should the federal government cut funding to the CBC?), ask students to discuss their opinions with a few of their neighbours for seven or eight minutes, have them cast a vote in favour or opposition and then display the results. Giving everyone a “voice” in the discussion this way and letting students see how their peers voted is often enough to get a good class-wide discussion rolling.
What’s in it for me? Used effectively, clickers can encourage students to participate in class discussions and make them more engaged in learning, which is probably the best reason to use them. And, just like my students, I appreciate the immediate feedback clickers provide. So, while administering a quiz, if I notice that the responses are low for a given question, I can circle back and go over that material again, as opposed to realizing this when I’m back in my office, marking papers. Likewise, if I’m concerned that I haven’t been clear enough explaining a topic, I can pose a clicker question on the fly that asks them if they’re catching on and respond accordingly. One study showed that clickers allow instructors to determine when the majority of a class understands a given issue so that you can move on to the next topic and not over-lecture about something most students have already grasped, thus conserving lecture time to devote to issues that need more explanation or discussion (Anderson et al., 2011).
Most clicker software is designed to sync up with your online course management software. In my case, that means I can upload my students’ quiz grades directly to my Desire2Learn grade book in just a few steps. The first few times it took me about 10 minutes to go through the uploading process, but now it takes less than five, which is much less time than it would take to grade even a 10-question multiple-choice test or enter the grades by hand. So, it’s a time-saver to be sure, especially for a larger class.
What’s in it for my students? As noted, students like using clickers and say they make for a more engaging learning environment, which is good for everyone. My perception is that students often seem chattier and more willing to participate in discussions after we use clickers; they’re an ice-breaker of sorts. Many students also report liking the anonymity that clickers provide in that they can provide answers to questions or input into a discussion without worrying about how they look in front of their peers (Kolikant et al., 2010; Liu & Stengel, 2011). If you log clicker responses as a means of grading student participation, this also gives quiet or shy students who would otherwise never speak in front of a group the chance to participate more fully and be rewarded for it.
How tech-savvy do I need to be? Hardly at all, not if I’m anything by which to judge. If you can run a slide presentation in class, you’ll have no trouble opening and closing a voting session and displaying the results. Of course, as with all new teaching technology, it’s best to do a couple of dry runs on your own before showcasing your new skills in front of a crowd.
Is there anything else I should know? In order to maximize the clickers’ ability to jolt students out of a note-taking-induced fugue state, it’s important to learn how to place your clicker questions at the right times when your students need a shift in their attention (Lantz, 2010). Admittedly, this is still something I’m working on, but given how much using clickers does shift the vibe of a class, it’s something I’m trying to think about more.
Finally, be clear in class and on your syllabus that clickers are a requirement for your class, just like a textbook or any other piece of equipment. Yes, they can seem expensive, but as long as you use them consistently and perhaps even talk some of your colleagues into using them, students will see the value in buying them and bringing them to class regularly.
If you’re interested in learning more about using clickers in your classes, there are some good resources on how to get started at Educause (just enter “clickers” in the search box) and the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia.
Anderson, L., Healy, A., Kole, J., & Bourne, L. (2011). Conserving time in the classroom: the clicker technique. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 64(8): 1457-1462.
Kolikant, Y., Drane, D. & Calkins, S. (2010). “Clickers” as catalysts for transformation of teachers. College Teaching, 58(4): 127-135.
Lantz, M. (2010). The use of “clickers” in the classroom: teaching innovation or merely an amusing novelty? Computers in Human Behavior, 26(4): 556-561.
Liu, W. & Stengel, D. (2011). Improving student retention and performance in quantitative courses using clickers. International Journal for Technology in Mathematics Education, 18(1): 51-58.
Smith, L., Shon, H., & Santiago, R. (2011). Audience response systems: using “clickers” to enhance BSW education. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 29(2): 120-132.
Smith, M., Trujillo, C., & Su, T. (2011). The benefits of using clickers in small-enrollment seminar-style biology courses. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 10(Spring 2011): 14-17.
Bruce Gillespie is an assistant professor in the journalism program at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Brantford campus. He’s also the co-editor of two essay anthologies about the changing nature of family in the 21st century: Somebody’s Child: Stories About Adoption and Nobody’s Father: Life Without Kids. Follow him on Twitter @bgillesp.
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Wilfrid Laurier-Brantford. We apologise for the error.