Why I use clickers in small courses

In the comments of my post discussing my doing away with clicker participation points, gasstationwithoutpumps commented:

I understand clickers for large lectures, but I’ve never gotten the point of them in a class of 10. Could you explain why you feel them useful in a class small enough that you can see all the students’ faces and ask them questions personally?

He provided me with a great opportunity to step back and consider my own personal reasons. Here they are. Please keep in mind that I am not trying to convince anybody that these are THE reasons to use clickers in a small classroom or to not use them, but are simply my reasons.

With clickers I feel that I can engage every student

I’m going to quote Stephanie Chasteen (sciencegeekgirl) from one of her posts in her series on clickers in upper-division physics. This is her response to a common argument against using clicker in upper-division courses:

Discussion is easy in small classes, we don’t need clickers. Some instructors do use other methods, such as colored cards, in small classes. The technology itself may not be as crucial, but the teaching method (of asking a question and encouraging students to discuss it with their neighbors) is still incredibly powerful. Plus, students can still “hide” in a class of 10. Or even a class of five. And so can their misconceptions. Students may think that they are following, but until they have to answer a challenging question, they may not be aware of difficulties that they have.

Despite the fact that I can ask all of them questions personally, when I ask one student a question I present the rest of the students the opportunity to “hide”. Just like in larger courses (well larger relative to 10), I want every single student to actually commit to an answer and become vested in the income. Without getting them to commit to an answer I feel that they often won’t fully consider what I am asking them. My analogy is that it is like the difference between having a character with an unfamiliar name in a book and just sort of mentally mumbling it every time you read it, compared to reading it out loud and having to actually commit to how you think that name might be pronounced. Committing to the specific answer with the clicker is like asking a person to try to pronounce that unfamiliar name, they can’t just mentally smudge it anymore. Without the clickers or some low-tech variation, I might be able to engage a few of the students in trying to pronounce the name out loud, and a few others might honestly try to do it without being called on. But like Stephanie says, students can still “hide in a class of 10.

Clickers help me create a safer learning environment for my students

Even in a class of 10, I find that there are usually some students that often do not feel comfortable discussing their understanding with the entire class. The clickers facilitate the argumentation process for these students in a smaller-group situation in which these students feel more comfortable, but are still help accountable for their answers. They help establish a culture where on most questions each student is going to be discussing their understanding with their peers. Clickers are not the only way to accomplish this, but are the way I do it.

Clickers are a very familiar pedagogical technique for me

I would say that my use of clickers falls much more in the “question driven instruction” camp then the “testing for understanding camp” (Ian Beatty talked about this in his AAPT 2011 Summer Meeting talk). And this has become a very familiar way to run a course for me. I am comfortable setting students up to learn the challenging application of a concept or to figure out how to proceed in a derivation through the use of clickers and group work on whiteboards.

Clickers allow me to record student understanding

As both a physics education researcher and somebody that continuously strives to improve my courses, the ability of the clickers to record snapshots of student understanding is invaluable.

8 Comments on “Why I use clickers in small courses”

  1. Thanks for this post. Blogs are so great for those who are seriously trying to do their best job – we get to put out our ideas and (hopefully) generate some real feedback.

    I take your point about discussion and safety and so on. I get concerned (and discouraged) when the seniors in college in my classrooms are still trying to hide their ideas and opinions in a class discussion. From my perspective, this is one of the main objectives of a university education – that the educated person can form opinions and defend them. I hope they are eager to do so. I want them to be more intellectual as a result of their time at university. I know many are not yet there but I’m not sure we should be providing safe harbor for those people in our classrooms. One of the reasons we start with large lecture halls for early classes and move to smaller, more personal class sizes in the later years is to help a student develop their ability to think and discuss – to exercise intellectual skill. I’m not advocating we should create an uncomfortable atmosphere but I do believe we should maintain high expectations with our students. We need to develop the skills that will encourage open discussion and defense of ideas and I know that is no easy task.

    Clickers will eventually become a part of every teacher’s tool box and with that, the potential to make it a crutch. Like the chalkboard, like the overhead projector, like the Powerpoint slide, like the video – all are great tools. We need to monitor our use of the tools to make sure we don’t let our backs get too weak to do good work into our later years.

    • Joss Ives says:

      Hi (T.) Rick,

      Thanks for the feedback.

      Last time I taught an upper-division course, it was the first time that any of those students had me as an instructor. As far as I recall, my course was the first time that any of them had taken a science course which they would have called interactive. And I definitely had some students that were used to “hiding” from open discussion. For these students, the clicker question discussions were probably the first time that they had been asked to argue scientifically with regularity. Last time I didn’t do a great job of getting them to move beyond that.

      But this time I am going to focus some attention on getting all the students to engage (on occasion) in the larger classroom discussions. I have a few safe ways for students to talk about clicker answers (see my picture) such as asking them what their group decided, or asking them why somebody might have chosen a given answer. Asking why somebody might have chosen a given answer is great because if they just happen to be defending their own choice, then it is something they have already considered, but won’t feel foolish for discussing why a person would choose that answer even if it is incorrect. If it wasn’t the answer they chose, then it is a really good exercise in argumentation since they now have to figure out what thought process a person would have gone through to choose that answer, but it’s not “their answer” so there’s no risk of looking foolish for expressing wrong ideas. Of course I am always trying to create a safe enough environment that a person won’t feel foolish for discussing their own incorrect understanding.

      And clickers can definitely be used poorly. Just like all the other things you list.

  2. Thanks, that explains some of your reasoning to me. I also noted that you seem to be using clickers for results of small-group discussion rather than individual responses. Or do you do both? Could you explain the mechanics of the small-group discussion clicker use? Also, how many clicker questions an hour do you have? How much time spent in small-group discussions?

    • Joss Ives says:

      An older post of mine on clickers starts to answer a lot of your questions.

      I ask a lot of “regular” clicker questions, by which I mean conceptual multiple-choice questions that it would also be reasonable to ask on a quiz or exam. But in the case of my 3rd year quantum mechanics course, we spend a lot of time on derivations and examples. And there I use a full spectrum that goes from (1) me doing the grunt work on the board but stopping to ask clicker questions about the important mental jumps along the way to (2) them just doing the whole thing on whiteboards and me wandering around and helping. For cases closer to (2) I will often ask on-the-fly or prepared clicker questions to help guide them through the example or derivation. I talk about this a bit more on this post on the interactive classroom (see the bullet point on clicker-based examples).

      I probably average 5-7 clicker questions per hour, but this really varies depending on how much I am asking them to do on the whiteboards. I try to only do a few minutes at a time of me talking or working on the board. They spend the rest of the time doing clicker questions, working on whiteboards or reporting to the class.

  3. bretbenesh says:

    Hi Joss,

    My analogy is that it is like the difference between having a character with an unfamiliar name in a book and just sort of mentally mumbling it every time you read it, compared to reading it out loud and having to actually commit to how you think that name might be pronounced.

    I am not proud of this, but this is exactly what happened to me in 12th grade with “Raskolnikov” in Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov! I was really confused for the first 20 minutes of the discussion—I did not know who everyone was talking about.

    This post makes me happy, since this is my first clicker-heavy semester, and I am trying it with class sizes of 17 and 8.

    • Joss Ives says:

      I still do it all the time. Although I had never committed to any specific of pronunciation, I was very surprised to learn how Hermione was pronounced once I saw the first Harry Potter movie.

  4. […] teacher cheat sheet. I was already curious because Andy Rundquist and Joss Ives were blogging about interesting ways to use PI, even with small groups.  I hadn’t looked into it because, until this year, I’ve never been so unsuccessful in […]

  5. […] Ives. 2011. “Why I Use Clickers in Small Courses.” Science Learnification […]

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