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Clickers in the Classroom at U Wisconsin-Madison

In an experiment that stretches nearly six years, a psychology professor has found that student response systems ramp up engagement.

Jeffrey Henriques initially introduced a classroom response system--a "clicker"--into his courses at the University of Wisconsin-Madison during fall 2004 to encourage students to participate in the questions he would throw at them. The researcher and senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology adopted the technology as an alternative to asking students to raise their hands to answer questions in his classes. He found that a large number of students wouldn't respond."

They were reluctant to reveal their uncertainty to their classmates or to their instructors," he recalled. The use of a device allows the student to keep the response "essentially anonymous to the rest of the class." And, added Henriques, "because [students] are answering the questions on their own rather than basing their responses on who else has their hands up in the air, they are getting are more accurate assessment of what they do and do not understand."

A "clicker" system allows the faculty member to pose questions during class and have students respond via a device. Those results are recorded for sharing with the students or storing in a database.

Evaluation and Common Adoption
The first type of clicker Henriques tried five years ago was an infrared device that worked like a TV remote. Students had to aim the device at a receiver in order to get their responses to register. Following a campus-wide evaluation process during 2006 and 2007, he switched to a radio frequency remote device, the Classroom Performance System (CPS) from eInstruction, which he used for a couple of years.

Most recently, during the summer of 2009 Henriques and other instructors and technologists at the university did another evaluation of clicker systems and have recommended adoption of the i>clicker classroom response system from a company by the same name. The setup, which consists of a base station that receives signals from the student devices and records them to software on the PC, works at a radio frequency of 915 MHz, which, the company said, won't interfere with campus WiFi technologies. It can handle input from up to 1,500 students per receiver and count 750 votes per second. When a user has voted, an LED on the hand unit turns green. A red flashing light tells the user to vote again. To save on battery use, the hand unit will shut off after 90 minutes of communicating with the base station; if it has been turned on accidentally, such as while in a backpack, it'll shut off after five minutes.

The recommendation to use the i>clicker in classes at the university isn't the same as "official university policy," Henriques pointed out. "Instructors value their freedom to choose what works best for them." But by having a particular unit adopted campus-wide, students save money and technical support issues are reduced. "Ideally [students] purchase one clicker and use that throughout their time in school rather than having to buy three or four different models for each of their different classes," he said. "The use of a singular system also makes providing support for instructors manageable."

Henriques estimated that about seven classes currently use the i>clicker, the largest a biology class that has about 1,500 students across five sections. However, he said he expects those numbers to increase in 2010.

"I was part of a presentation ... at a meeting of the campus Instructional Technology Committee, and the committee members were pretty wowed with the ease of installation and use of the i>clicker system," he said. "One of my colleagues, Cindee Giffen, installed the software, started it up, configured the settings, and began collecting data in less than five minutes, and half of that time was spent explaining the steps she was going through as opposed to actually getting the software started."

How Clickers Are Used
Henriques said he typically asks four to six questions during a class period in which he uses the clickers for response. The purposes of the questions are many:

  • As a concept check to see what students understand about a topic. "This gives me immediate feedback on my teaching and allows me to see if I need to go over a concept again to help students understand the material better," he said. "Likewise, the clicker questions allow the students to assess their own understanding of the material, and they can see how they compare to their classmates. For instance, if they got a question wrong, were there many other students who also had difficulty with the material or were they one of the few who didn't understand the question?"
  • To describe a research study to the students and have them predict what the outcomes will be of the experiment. "This engages their critical thinking skills," Henriques explained. "Can they apply what they have learned in class to a research question? At other times [the poll] allows me to show students how a study's findings go against the commonsense explanation for what would happen."
  • To demonstrate different psychological concepts. "I use this specifically in the area of cognition and problem solving, demonstrating ideas such as the availability heuristic by asking students if they think that there are more words in the English language that start with the letter 'k' or more words that have 'k' as the third letter," he said. "While it is easier to think of words that start with the letter 'k' and that leads us to conclude that there are more such words in the English language, it is the case that there are three to five times as many words that have 'k' as the third letter."
  • To get students thinking about the material they're about to cover in class. "For instance, I may ask them a question that they can't correctly answer prior to the lecture but should be able to understand and answer correctly once we finish covering the material," Henriques said. "Other times I will ask them to reflect on their own experiences as a way to help them understand how the different theories arose that we are about to discuss. I just did this in my lecture on emotion, asking students to think about the last time that they had a strong emotional response and whether the feeling of emotion preceded, followed, or coincided with the physiological feelings of emotion."
  • To give students practice with the types of questions that they are going to encounter on exams in the course. "Oftentimes incoming students expect that college exams are going to be similar to high school exams--simple regurgitation of facts," he said. "But I want my students to be able to apply the ideas that we are talking about in class. These in-class questions can help them start thinking in those ways before they encounter their first exam.
  • To poll students about their behavior, "such as how many hours of sleep they get in a night as a lead-in to that course topic," Henriques explained.

Henriques said he likes i>clicker specifically because it's simple to use and easy to get up and running. "Even instructors who have almost no technological skill can install and start using i>clicker in just about five minutes," he said. "I have used other systems that are so sophisticated and have so many bells and whistles that they end up being a major headache for the instructor. All those features sound attractive when a sales rep is presenting the system to you, but it drives you crazy trying to use it in your classroom or trying to get your results out of the system, and really all you want to do is engage your students and see if they understand the material."

Also, i>clicker can export student data directly into a format that can be imported into the campus course management system, Desire2Learn, and the system integrates with PowerPoint to allow the instructor to display questions.

Plus, he added, it's relatively inexpensive for students. The UW Madison bookstore sells the device new for $35. Used models are $26.50. "It's a reliable, sturdy device that has a low one-time cost," he said. "Students appreciate that, and they like that they don't have to pay a registration fee each semester on top of the purchase price of the clicker."

What Students Think
The professor surveys his students at the end of each semester and requests feedback on the utilities and teaching methods he uses, as well as their perceived learning gains. On those measures, he said, students rate clickers favorably, especially for their anonymity, their "fun" factor, and the ability to help the respondent think more critically about the material.

"I found the clicker questions used in class to be a great interactive way to get involved in class," commented one student in a survey. "As opposed to sitting there without a clicker, it forced me to commit to an answer to test whether I truly understood what was being asked."

What they don't do, Henriques said, is raise test scores. There's no distinguishable difference in overall class performance, nor in rating the usefulness of class lectures. But, he concluded, "Clickers can be an effective way to get students engaged in the classroom and enthusiastic about learning."

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