It was my second year of teaching at the University of Texas at Austin when I first learned about a new education technology: Classroom Response System (aka clicker). I was intrigued by this small gadget looking like a home remote control used by students in the class and its ability to engage in a real-time interactions between instructor and students during the class. I was teaching a large-size introductory class with about 200-250 students at that time, and wanted to find a way to better interact with the students in the class. It was a timely discovery for me.
The university’s learning center provided workshops and ran a help desk for such tools, to my delight. Soon, I took some of their workshops and individual consulting meetings. At that time, the most popular clicker used on campus was the ‘CPS.’ After spending some time toying around this new tool with help of the university learning center as well as the clicker company’s tech support, I decided to adopt it in my class finally.
Introducing a new tool and new way of interacting/grading for a class was one thing. Convincing my senior co-instructor was another challenge. A new technology was deemed terrifying and unnecessary complexity for him, at least in the beginning. I was extremely grateful that he agreed to adopt this new experiment in our class although he was not yet comfortable in utilizing it at his teaching. I assured him that I would help and do the extra works associated with this new ‘thing.’
There were many benefits by using a clicker in the class as expected. Students’ attention and interactions improved and the student attendance increased dramatically despite insignificant portion of its points toward the course grade. Students were pleased to have an opportunity to check their understanding in a low-stakes way and have a new perspective of their thoughts in comparison with the classmates’ on site. Also it was entertaining with little bit of excitement when I reveal the right answers. One of the great benefits of this method is that I could engage in a conversation with the class on a certain topic after we finished the clicker quiz. The other important benefit is that I can sense whether the class is learning some important concepts correctly. If majority fails to answer the correct answer for an important concept, I could go back and explain it again.
One little challenge for me was time management with clicker questions in the lecture. I tend to use about 20 slides per hour in lecture. Each clicker question would require a separate slide and at least couple minutes of time. Considering a typical attention span for young people (7-15 minutes), I had thought I should use at least few clicker questions during an hour-long lecture, as a refresher. But it turned out to be little too many. I have adjusted to have 3-4 clicker questions maximum during the 2-hour-long lecture. One other surprise was the anxiety level of the students. I thought they are a perfect generation to use a new technological gadget in class as they use such devices (e.g. smart phones, ipods, laptops, etc) all the time with amazing dexterousness. It was apparent that I was wrong. Some students complained that they were too nervous to answer the questions within the given short time. Perhaps it was related to their grade, I thought. To lower their anxiousness, I tried to give them more time to think and emphasized that the clicker scores count very small portion in their final grades. It was not merely another quiz, but an opportunity to engage in reflective thinking and additional assessment of the class performance.
There were, however, a number of more serious downside for this new trial. Both young students and we, the instructors, had to face a steep learning curve for the operation procedure of this gadget. It was relatively early period of this gadget and its company was still developing software and hardware. I felt sometimes we might be Guinea pigs for testing their markets, when we ran into very complex troubleshooting issues. I had to spend ‘lots’ of extra time to troubleshoot situations with help of the clicker company’s technical supports. Sometimes I couldn’t help but wondering if this much of time investment was worth.
Next year, we have migrated to a different clicker company (‘i>clicker’), mainly due to its simplicity in operation and management. Although I ran into many technical issues again, the troubleshooting was less painful this time.
Over the years, I have diversified the nature of my clicker questions in the class. In the beginning my questions were basically “What I just said?” kind of questions. It was just testing the students’ attention. Later, I started to ask them with ‘opinion questions’ on certain issues or ‘what would you think for this case… based on what you just learned?’ type questions as well. Sometimes, I asked them a relatively complex question, let them answer individually as usual, then, instead of showing the answer, I let them group up with few neighbors for discussion and answer the same question again. At this time I showed the right answer. Students are usually surprised how their answers would shift toward the correct one after a few minutes of peer discussion.
Earlier this year, I tried a class poll with the clickers when we had a series of group project presentations. Once a group finishes their presentations, the rest of the class would submit their evaluation scores with their clickers. I compile their scores as peer-evaluation grade to use the average score as a part of their course grade. Of course I need to review their polls to see if there is any obvious outliers. It was not as simple as I had originally thought, but worth trying.
As the technology is evolving fast, I suppose new opportunities to engage students better in class would increase. I think one thing the instructors should remember is that the purpose of this technology in class is not to add a burden but to have better engagement and better assessment (hence hopefully better learning).