At Universities, Is Better Learning a Click Away?

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The students in Michael Dubson’s physics class at the University of Colorado at Boulder fell silent as a multiple-choice question flashed on a screen, sending them scrambling for small white devices on their desks. Within seconds, a monitor on Mr. Dubson’s desk told him 92 percent of the class had correctly answered the question on kinetic energy, a sign that they grasped the concept.

Clickers—not unlike gadgets used on television game shows—first appeared in college classrooms over a decade ago and have since spread to just about every college and university in the country, thanks to cheaper and better technology. Though K-12 schools have been slower to incorporate the devices into classrooms, their use is growing in that sector, too.

But as clickers have become more popular, particularly in higher education, a divide has emerged over just how sophisticated they should be.

Some professors such as Mr. Dubson endorse simple, straightforward devices that stick to multiple-choice questions. Others embrace fancier models or newer applications for smartphones and laptop computers that allow students to query the professor by text or e-mail during the lecture or conduct discussions with classmates—without the cost of purchasing a clicker.

Those preferring simplicity say pared-down remotes reduce distractions in a multitasking world, while others say fighting the march to smartphones and digital tablets is a losing battle.

Clickers first gained popularity in large science lecture halls as a way of gauging whether students understood the material. They have since migrated into smaller classrooms and can be found in nursing and other professional schools. Even classrooms with 20 or fewer students in middle schools and high schools are using them.

Research at the college level has found that students like using the devices and that attendance often goes up when they are incorporated into learning. But results are mixed when it comes to actual learning. Some evidence suggests clicker use has led to only modest gains in retention and test scores, while other studies have detected little or no improvement, according to a November article in the North American Journal of Psychology.“It’s not magic,” Mr. Dubson said. “It can be used very badly or well.”

What works with the clickers, according to Mr. Dubson and other professors, are questions that spark discussion and get students to explain concepts to each other. What doesn’t work is using them sporadically or for rote memorization.

Students also become resentful when the devices are used to play attendance cop and spring pop quizzes.

At the University of Colorado, 20,000 of the 30,000 students on campus own clickers. They can be found in music, environmental studies, communications, comparative politics, and law classes.

Clickers get mostly positive reviews in Mr. Dubson’s class of 250.

“With such an enormous classroom, it’s about as close as you can get to a hands-on approach to the material,” said Jaris Judd, a sophomore from Blairsville, Ga. “This keeps you more on track and in tune.”

William Powell, a junior from Durango, Colo., saw two benefits: “It’s good impetus to pay attention and not let your mind wander during the lecture. You can see how other people are doing compared to you ... and analyze why someone may have picked a different answer.”

The praise wasn’t universal. Even though Mr. Dubson keeps the stakes low—clicker questions are bonus points and count for a maximum of 2 percent of someone’s grade—the system by its nature makes attendance part of students’ grades, said Maximilian Bondrescu, a junior from Fort Collins, Colo.

“Plus, it’s an expense,” he said. “An extra device to carry around. It runs on batteries, and the batteries run out. But mostly I don’t like the attendance thing.”

More sophisticated clickers run in the $60 to $70 range. Some have gaming features, and one can record the fastest responders.

Most, if not all, of the handful of major companies in the clicker business are marketing applications that use smartphones or Web browsers to accomplish many of the same functions.

Education Week recently began a special technology feature that will appear in every issue of the newspaper, covering news, trends, and ideas about digital learning and administrative uses of tech tools in schools.

Visit Education Week Digital Directions Web site for regular updates on news, trends, and ideas in education technology.

At Central Michigan University, students in an introduction-to-teaching course use iPhones and iPod touches to answer poll questions and access discussion material on the Web. Students who don’t own either device can rent an iPod touch for $30 through the university bookstore.

Several schools—including the University of Notre Dame, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and the University of Florida—have turned to a text-messaging product marketed as a cheaper alternative to clickers.

Derek Bruff, the assistant director of Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching, in Nashville, Tenn., said simple clickers are great at multiple-choice questions. But he’s more excited about using smartphones, which allow students to ask questions of instructors, hold back-channel discussions with each other, and respond in their own words.

On the other side of the great clicker divide is Timothy Stelzer, an associate professor of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and co-inventor of the iClicker, used at the University of Colorado at Boulder and 900 other campuses. He argues that students will be too distracted by other things on their Web browsers and points to a Stanford University study last year that showed undergraduate students are lousy multitaskers.

“You obviously have to make something that sells,” Mr. Stelzer said. “But it’s very possible the excitement and enthusiasm about Web clickers might just kill the whole peer-instruction thing.”

Harvard University physics professor Eric Mazur, a pioneer of peer instruction, said he’s sympathetic to both camps. Still, he predicts that clickers will be obsolete in 10 years because nearly everyone will own something like a laptop, tablet, or smartphone, and he dismisses the argument that multitasking will be a problem.

“The teacher,” he said, “just has to be more interesting than YouTube.”

Vol. 29, Issue 28, Page 10

Published in Print: April 7, 2010, as Professors Ask, Is Classroom Clicking Better Learning?
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