When using clickers, it is helpful to keep these pedagogical techniques in mind:
Clickers questions help students learn by enabling peer instruction, a strategy promoted by Harvard University physics professor Eric Mazur. To use clickers for peer instruction, the instructor first asks a question and polls the class. If a large number of students got the answer wrong, or if the class is divided (as in the graph to the left), the instructor will ask students to turn to their neighbors and try to justify their answers. After students have discussed their answers with others, the instructor polls the class again on the same question. Usually, on this second round, many more students choose the correct answer. In this technique, clickers help students learn from and engage with one another instead of learning only from the professor. To learn about “peer instruction,” read this discussion of teaching with clickers on the National Education Association website.
Clickers questions help students evaluate themselves in relation to their peers, providing students with evidence of success, giving them confidence to ask questions, and functioning as an early warning signal for confusion. Especially in classes that have only a few major assessments, students often have few tools to gauge how they are doing; Clicker questions, however, give students early, concrete data on their own performances. If a student answers a question incorrectly but sees that half of the class is also confused, he or she might feel more confident about asking for clarification. Instructors can capitalize even further on this capability of clickers to facilitate peer evaluation. For instance, in this article, Derek Bruff of Vanderbilt University describes how clickers supported the process of peer review in his first-year writing seminar. Students evaluated the essay of a fellow-student who had agreed to let the class scrutinize his work. Using clickers, students voted on how they would score various elements of the essay based on Bruff’s grading rubric. Because the class discussed specific examples from the writing sample, this process clarified Bruff’s expectations of student writing for the class. Bruff further speculates that seeing the clickers graph of others’ opinions made it more socially acceptable for students to offer specific examples of ways the paper could be improved.
Clickers are often set up so that the instructor can see how each student has voted. Students’ answers are effectively anonymous within the classroom, however, because their classmates have no way of knowing how they voted on a particular poll. This anonymity can help instructors initiate class discussions about sensitive topics that might otherwise be difficult to explore. Questions on controversial issues in a political science course can sometimes be met with absolute silence (Abrahamson, 1999), but the use of clickers provides a safe way for even the shyest student to participate. When students answer a controversial question using clickers, their own responses, and their questions about their peers’ responses, can provide an opening for class discussion. Instead of drawing conclusions from the most vocal students, the instructor receives a far more accurate overview of opinions from the entire class. Most importantly, the anonymity of clickers ensures that viewpoints that might not otherwise be expressed during class discussion are given a voice. (Adapted from Teaching with Clickers by Erping Zhu, Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan ).
Clickers can help warm up students for a class-wide discussion of the day’s material. Instructors often start class discussions by asking a question and calling on the first student who raises his or her hand. Using clickers, the instructor can pose a question, give students time to think about it, and then display all the student answers for the entire class to see. This approach gives each student time to think about and commit to an answer, setting the stage for greater participation in the class discussion. (Adapted from Classroom Response Systems by Derek Bruff, Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University).
Leaving Poll Open
Most clickers polls are finished within a minute or two, but sometimes in can be helpful to leave the poll open to allow students to reflect on the class material and report their responses live. For instance, Georgetown Government professor Matt Carnes will ask a controversial question like this one at the beginning of a class session and then leave the poll open as the class continues to discuss the issue. Students then change their responses as they look at the data and think about the question further. The graph of student answers changes in real time in response to class discussion, and class discussion might also encompass the changing graph of student answers. This method creates a dynamic environment in which even students who are not raising their hands are still responding in a meaningful way to class discussion.
Clickers can increase student engagement by facilitating interactive demonstrations; students can use clickers to report the results of any activity or experiment that they do in class. For instance, Georgetown Biology Professor Matt Hamilton teaches students about genetic drift, a complex and abstract concept, by having them model the data for themselves by flipping coins and reporting their results using clickers. Whether students are reporting individually or in groups, using clickers means that they can immediately see not only their own results but also the results of their peers. This kind of real-time, interactive demonstration greatly facilitates student learning.