Ed-Tech Policy

Technology Turns Test-Prep Into Clicking Experience

By Andrew Trotter — May 10, 2005 7 min read
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If not for their eye-catching shade of blue, the small, plastic oblongs would be unnoticeable amid the clutter of papers, book bags, and purses on and around the desks in Kenneth McCreary’s English class at Grace E. Metz Middle School here.

Commonly known as “clickers,” the slim devices resemble television remote controls, and are, in fact, technically similar. But classroom clickers aim for a greater purpose than simply helping couch potatoes channel-surf. Educators who have used them say clickers help involve every student in a lesson and give teachers immediate feedback about what students are learning, so that instructional strategies can be changed on the fly.

At this 1,480-student middle school, a half-hour’s drive southwest of Washington, many students have used clickers for three years. The teenagers in Mr. McCreary’s 8th grade class, for example, finger the blue gizmos as casually as a cellphone or a pen.

And every few moments on this April day, the students point their gadgets at a large TV screen mounted above the teacher’s desk, and press one of the eight white buttons on the devices. On the screen is the latest quiz question for reading comprehension, and four possible answers. Below the answers, colored boxes representing individual students flicker as their responses are registered.

After each flurry of clicking subsides, Mr. McCreary presses a computer key on his laptop to present a tally of the students’ answers on the screen above his head.

“Why did eight of you choose A?” he asks, launching into a discussion of the meaning of a paragraph of text.

Test-Preparation Tool

Virginia’s 6,700-student Manassas city school district uses clickers that are a component of the Classroom Performance System by eInstruction, a Denton, Texas-based company. That system also includes the software for presentation of curriculum and assessment items as well as the receivers that collect messages from the clickers.

And like the school’s other 8th grade teachers, Mr. McCreary is using the system this spring to prepare his students for the state Standards of Learning assessments, the crucial battery of tests they will start taking May 19.

Students at Grace E. Metz Middle School in Manassas, Va., use interactive remote controls, or "clickers," to prepare for state tests.

The blue clickers—the company calls them “response pads”—may look like toys, but they are not gimmicks. Like a TV remote control, a clicker sends infrared signals to a receiver, a blue plastic dome the size of a smoke detector. A cable from the receiver leads to the back of the teacher’s computer, itself hooked up to the TV.

Some educators who have studied clickers say they can help teachers get a quick read on whether their students understand what they are teaching.

“All the research says that, as a rule of thumb, the more active the students are, the more they are able to retain,” said Douglas K. Duncan, the author of Clickers in the Classroom, published this year by Benjamin Cummings, a division of Pearson Education.

Although Mr. Duncan, an astronomy professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, wrote his book primarily for higher education, he says its basic lessons are “very applicable to K-12.”

For several years, he has used clickers in large astronomy lectures, so students can reveal their level of understanding every few minutes by answering a question he flashes on a screen or simply writes on a whiteboard.

The system he uses—made by Hyper-Interactive Teaching Technology, a company based in Fayetteville, Ark.—swiftly tallies students’ responses, which, depending on his purpose, Mr. Duncan can keep to himself or present to everyone as a tally or as a bar or pie graph on an overhead projector.

Other companies with learning systems that use clickers include Promethean Ltd., of Blackburn, England, and Qwizdom, of Pullayup, Wash.

“I would tend to pick one based on how friendly the software seemed to be,” Mr. Duncan said. “Like anything else in the classroom, you want the overhead—the operational time [required]—to be minimized.”

Other educators, though, are more critical of the devices.

Alan M. Warhaftig, a high school English teacher at Fairfax Magnet Center for Visual Arts in Los Angeles, says the devices have some utility, but he cautions that teachers would tend to overuse them. He suggests, too, that clickers would likely mean ceding too much classroom time to multiple-choice activities.

“It’s kind of inherently a failed approach at making schools more entertaining,” he said.

Investing in Clickers

The Manassas district chose the eInstruction system in a selection process conducted by the district’s supervisor of instructional technology, William Waller, stemming from research that Patti Shaw, the instructional-technology training specialist at Metz Middle School, conducted as part of a graduate course.

“If people have good ideas, I try to get them into the classroom,” Mr. Waller said.

The district had no budget for clickers, so it poured its federal grants for educational technology under the No Child Left Behind Act—totaling about $50,000 over three years—into purchasing some 30 clicker systems and training teachers.

Grace E. Metz Middle School in Manassas , Va., uses "clickers" to prepare for state tests.

The price for a single 24-clicker system, including the infrared receiving station and a license for the software, is about $1,500. Metz has six of their eight clicker systems on carts equipped with a laptop and an overhead projector.

District officials initially focused on providing clickers for grades 3, 5, and 8, because they were the initial target years for the Standards of Learning assessments. Now Mr. Waller is getting clicker units for all grades, including high school.

For the next couple of weeks, because of preparation for the state tests, the 8th grade gets first dibs on every clicker at Metz, Ms. Shaw noted. She added that, even after using them for three years, students haven’t lost their enthusiasm for the devices. “By 8th grade, they’re still enjoying it,” she said.

Teachers’ comfort level with the clickers depends largely on training.

Douglas E. Pennekamp, a Houston, Texas-based consultant who does training for eInstruction, was at the Manassas district office recently, giving 14 teachers a hands-on seminar on how to use the clickers for various classroom activities. The former science teacher showed them how to whip up quick quizzes with the software, if their preparation time is limited.

The district’s own technology trainers do their part before, and after, the all-day session. For example, Sandra Mozingo, the instructional-technology training specialist for Manassas’ elementary schools, convinces teachers that clickers are worthwhile by taking over a teacher’s classroom and using them to run a lesson, allowing the teacher to observe.

After the teachers complete their training, Ms. Mozingo stays in close touch. “Sometimes,” she said, “they get back in their class and ask: ‘How do you start this thing?’ ”

‘Jeopardy!’-Style Lesson

Targeting the state assessments took an additional, time-consuming step: Several staff members typed every one of the hundreds of released SOL test items into the database that works with the clicker system.

But with that task accomplished, teachers can easily select questions for classroom drills, and reorganize items and serve them up in different ways.

One popular format, which Mr. Pennekamp demonstrated, is a game similar to “Jeopardy!” included as part of the software, which groups questions into topical categories with varying point values.

Mr. McCreary, the English teacher, says that even though he was just recently trained on the system and regards himself as a beginner, he can prepare enough questions for a full classroom lesson in five or 10 minutes. “If it took half an hour, I wouldn’t use it that often,” he said.

A few doors down from Mr. McCreary’s class, teacher Mickey Archer’s science class was using the “Jeopardy!”-style game. A student’s number, chosen at random, was projected onto the classroom’s whiteboard. The selected student then chose the category and point value of the next question. Another student, who was tending the laptop and the digital projector, read the question aloud: “What causes dew?”

After all students had chosen among the options—condensation, evaporation, transpiration, and precipitation—a green check appeared by the correct choice. The screen also showed the distribution of answers among all the options.

In another classroom nearby, math teacher Emily Bailey was projecting math problems released from the state tests on the whiteboard. After her 20 students clicked in their answers, she identified the test-taking strategies that could improve their odds of choosing correctly.

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