Clickers Add Interactive Component to Large Classes

Ask any professor what issues he faces when instructing a large class, and two of his answers are sure to be that it’s nearly impossible to record attendance or ensure that students understand the material presented. Emerging technology is making both of those issues as extinct as the pterodactyl.

That technology is a personal response system — commonly called clickers — which professors use to solve both of the previously mentioned challenges and more. The system includes a clicker: a device that looks like a TV remote control with several buttons and options on it. Each student purchases his own. The clicker sends a signal that is detected by a receiver in the room. The signals are collected in a hub, which goes to the computer in the room.

Receivers can be either infrared wireless, which require a number of receivers that is proportionate to the number of clickers being used; or radio frequency, where one receiver is attached inside the lectern where the computer is located. Through the computer, a professor displays on a screen a multiple-choice question for students to answer. Students use their clickers to choose their answers, which are recorded directly into the computer. The system, for which there are a number of manufacturers, has been piloted and is now being employed by a number of universities.

Live On Campus

Edward J. Evans, director of Learning Spaces at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., is using a system called CPSRF for Higher Education, manufactured by eInstruction in Denton, Texas. He notes that, in the spring and fall '04 semesters, about 1,200 students had clickers, with about five professors using the system in about six classrooms.“This past spring, we began using RF clickers on a piloted basis,” he notes,“and we had 2,500 students using them. We outfitted about 23 classrooms, and there were 13 classes actually using it. This fall, we have 43 classes and 6,500 students using the clickers in more than 200 classrooms.”

In another example, C.W. (Bill) McLaughlin, Chemistry professor and coordinator of General Chemistry Programs at University of Nebraska at Lincoln, is using InterWrite PRS by GTCO CalComp in Columbia, Md. He notes that, last year, about 800 students were using clickers in their chemistry classes. “This fall, it’s more like 1,400,” he notes. In addition, where perhaps four classrooms were wired to accommodate the system, there are now close to 20. “It’s getting more widely accepted,” McLaughlin says.

When clickers first hit the scene they were bundled with textbooks, and students had one clicker for each class. “Faculty would get the hardware for free,” says Evans. “So, it’s a very low entry point from the perspective of faculty and students, until you have a number of them on campus.”

When administrators at Evans’ campus saw a grassroots interest in the concept, they moved forward with a standard. They partnered with the textbook publishers. The school’s agreement covers the cost of the receivers, and it waves the cost of clicker activation for the students. Students only pay for the cost of the clicker. McLaughlin adds that, since the concept has taken off on his campus and wrinkles have been ironed out; students need only purchase one clicker, which is good for the next four years for any class they take.

The information that is collected when students click their answers is stored in a network. The professor accesses it just as he would any file in a directory. The directories are accessible from any computer. One reasons professors like the system is that it provides instant grading of quizzes — saving them valuable time.

Professors also say that, because students know they may be presented with pop quizzes via the system, they are more likely to come to class prepared. “Anecdotally, some faculty have said that test scores have increased, although I can’t really prove that in an academic sense,” says Evans.

Professors can use the system for taking attendance, which is otherwise practically impossible in a large class. “We have had some faculty report that, if they walk into the classroom and there is a problem with the system, they have a high attrition rate — the students are more likely to leave the class,” notes Evans.

Equally, if not more important, instructors who use a clicker system get immediate feedback as to whether students are learning. “Clickers take the guess out of whether students understand,” says McLaughlin. “I know way more about what is going on, and the students are more engaged.”

Student Engagement

On the flip side, students like the clickers, too. McLaughlin says that he is asking questions about the clickers on the end-of-class evaluation forms. “One question I asked was, 'Respond to this statement: I hope that my next chemistry class uses clickers to make it more interactive. I strongly agree, agree, feel neutral, disagree, strongly disagree.’ Eighty-four percent of the students checked in at strongly agree or agree. It was overwhelming that students liked the idea, and that they were hopeful that their next class would use them.”

With this much acceptance, Purdue University is already working to add value to the clicker system by integrating it with their course management system. “Through the mechanism they’re accustomed to using for managing their class,” says Evans, “the faculty can set up their WebCT class for clickers versus having to go to a separate Website to set it up. Likewise, the students can use the course management system in the manner they’re accustomed in order to register and activate their clickers rather than going to a separate Website.”

Of course, before you can get to value added, you need to decide which clicker system to buy. Here, McLaughlin offers wisdom from his experience. “The bigger decision isn’t necessarily what brand of clicker to buy so much as it is why do you want to have them? If you don’t have a good answer to that, then don’t make the investment,” he cautions. “If you have a good answer about how it can enhance instruction, how it can show students that you care, how you can engage students more interactively in the classroom, then there are products that can help you do that now.”

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