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Using Classroom Clickers To Engage Every Student

"With clickers, you're giving every student a voice, even the introverts," according to Edna Ross, a resource teaching professor and the chair of the University Instructional Technology Committee in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, speaking about classroom response systems.

Ross, who is speaking in November at the first-ever conference on clickers in the classroom,
led the effort to bring classroom response devices into classrooms at the University of Louisville. , In the last five years or so, she has begun using the devices in her classrooms with great success.

Ross, whose courses include introductory psychology, developmental psychology, and the history of systems psychology, has taught for more than 30 years. We spoke with her recently about how clickers in the classroom can help to engage students, particularly--though not exclusively--in large lecture situations.

Campus Technology: Can you describe how you use clickers in class?

Ross: I teach as many as 350 students at a time, freshmen students who are often coming from a high school classroom environment where the maximum class size was 30. All of a sudden they're stuck in a classroom with 350--that is massive culture shock for most incoming freshmen.

I have found that using clickers allows them to have their voices heard, allows them to participate in lecture discussions without exposing ... perhaps ... a minority viewpoint to ridicule or criticism. Students are far more open with clickers. We actually have, dare I use the term, "fun" in class.

CT: It sounds like you've seen great success with these devices.

Ross: Yes, I have. It encourages students to come to class, for one thing. As I said, coming from a 30-person high school class, all of a sudden they're stuck in this [huge] college class; students may feel detached or alienated. [They may think], What difference does it make if I attend? With clickers, I make it more interactive and more engaging. They get reinforced. There are rewards for showing up.

CT: What are specific ways that you use clickers in class?

Ross: I use the clickers in several ways. One way is to train students--"shape" is the psychological term--to read the textbook and know the lecture material before they come to class.

I'm talking about freshmen here in a large class. They're coming from a high school environment where reading the textbook wasn't necessarily something they did. All of a sudden, I'm requiring them to read this college-level book and have it read before they come to a large lecture class.

To train them, I have clicker questions on the material that they should have read before they came to class. It's really a clicker quiz. And some of those questions are on exams, so that makes them pay attention too. It's not just extraneous material.

I have an algorithm whereby I calculate how many correct clicker responses they have during a given period, and they get extra credit points on their exam.

CT: So you're able to trace individual responses back to students?

Ross: Precisely. With the iclicker system [used at the university, students] register in a global database, and then I synchronize my class roster to that registration information. So I know exactly which students are answering what. I have a complete paper trail.

CT: But that information remains confidential; only you can see it?

Ross: Yes. That's what gives students the freedom to express their opinions freely.

I gave the example of using clickers to ask factual questions based on the textbook. Another way I use clickers is to engage the students in the material, and to get a discussion going in the class at large. In large classes, you're going to have extroverts who can dominate the discussion. They don't mind getting up and speaking in front of 300 students. They will completely control the situation, and students who have a minority or discrepant view aren't going to feel comfortable or confident enough to express that view.

With clickers, you're giving every student a voice, even the introverts, even the shy ones, and the ones who don't agree with the dominant social position. I'm giving them a voice, and it's heard instantly.

CT: How many questions will you generally ask during class? What's a good measure for that?

Ross: There really is a fine line. If you use them too many times, students just think it's a gimmick. The instructor needs to be able to gauge at what point clicker questions are most appropriate.

That brings up a third way I use clickers in class, and that is to gather feedback on whether students understand what I just said. Instructors do this all the time: "Any questions? This is a difficult concept, people." Very few students are going to raise their hands and say, “I don't understand that. Could you explain it [again]?”

So I have a clicker question on that material. From experience, I know the speed bumps in student comprehension. So I will know from the responses to that question how well the class as a whole understands a concept....

CT: I generally think of clickers as useful in large classrooms, but what about small settings?

Ross: I also use them in my honors classes, where I have 20 to 24 students. They are useful there for feedback on who understands what, [as well as] who has done the supplemental readings to the textbook, and to go over sensitive material.

CT: By sensitive material, do you mean issues that students might not want to discuss in front of others?

Ross: Right. We can have those conversations without people identifying who they are... The students are very interested in seeing what their peers think. Very interested. I've had some very interesting discussions [with students] using clicker questions....

CT: Have these devices changed your teaching style?

Ross: I've always been an interactive teacher... but now I'm more precisely interactive. Because you can do questions on the fly, and you don't have to come in with predetermined questions you're going to ask, based on how my students are responding to the materials we're covering, I can go in any direction at any point. And I know how they're responding. I use [Microsoft] PowerPoint very effectively, thank you ... along with clickers.

CT: As with any technology, classroom response systems have their detractors. What do you see as a possible downside to clickers in classrooms?

Ross: The problem with instructional technology is, if it's too bells-and-whistles-y, if it's too complex, the learning curve for the typical faculty is much too steep. After all, our job is not to deal with technology, it's to instruct students. Most of us don't have the time to learn complicated types of instructional technology. Most of us also don't want to be dependent on ... IT personnel to bail us out every time we're in trouble in front of the classroom.

With the iclicker technology, there's virtually no learning curve. I don't want to sound like a commercial, but ... I think the defining point with iclickers is that they were developed by college professors who have been in a classroom....

CT: Clickers are fairly simple devices in themselves, but are there features to look for if an institution is considering standardizing on a clicker?

Ross: Ease of use.... You don't want to overburden IT or faculty. It has to be a system that does the job but does it so easily that faculty aren't intimidated by using it.

CT: Let me ask you about the upcoming Nov. 15 conference at the University of Louisville on classroom response systems, at which you're speaking....  It's the first conference specifically on clickers?

Ross: Yes....  This conference is all about best practices with clickers, [especially] discipline-specific best practices. Some principles [of clicker use] go across all disciplines, but an educational part of this conference for faculty is that they will be able to hear and see how clickers are being used in some very diverse disciplines.
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