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How to teach using classroom clickers

Real-time feedback from students – when used to effect - can energize your classroom

BY BALBIR GILL | JUN 08 2009

If you’ve ever wondered what your students are really thinking during class, particularly those with 700 or more students, you may want to consider using a student response system, often called a clicker. This little device looks like a remote control and is used by students to respond immediately to multiple-choice questions given by the instructor.

McGill University and the universities of British Columbia, Western Ontario, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Alberta have all adopted this innovative device. But don’t expect miracles by just quizzing your students – the real magic happens when the clicker is woven into your lectures in a way that challenges and engages them.

“The best thing about having clickers in the classroom is they can facilitate a qualitative transformation of the lecture,” says Tim Stelzer, co-inventor of the i>clicker, one of several brands available, during a product demonstration at Concordia University in April. “Instead of students being passive absorbers of information, they actively participate in creating knowledge from their information and experiences,” said Dr. Stelzer, a professor of physics at the University of Illinois.

Here, then, are some tips on how to get up and running with a student response system in your classroom – and hopefully engage your students as a result.

Getting started

There are two parts to a student response system: the instructor’s components and the student clickers, which are purchased through the university bookstore.

Because students must purchase their clicker and can use them for multiple courses, you must check to see which brand of clicker your university has adopted, such as i>clicker, Turning Point or Interwrite. (Some universities buy back used clickers and re-sell them much as they do used textbooks.) The professor’s components, including a receiver and software, may be free if a certain number of students purchase clickers for that class, depending on your university’s contract with the company. Many universities don’t have an exclusive clicker contract, but can still make arrangements for your students to purchase clickers through the university bookstore. Prices for student clickers range from $35 at UBC to $50 at McGill and UWO.

Concordia professor Heidi Muchall tried the i>clicker with her organic chemistry class for a term. “You can use it with [presentation] software or with a blackboard so you don’t have to change how you lecture,” she said, noting that whichever type of clicker you choose, the most important aspect is using it to encourage discussion in the classroom.

Talk to your students about why you use clickers

Clickers may be new to your students, so make sure they understand why you are bringing the device into your classroom. The better they understand this, the more likely they are to embrace its use.

Your own objectives may include promoting discussion or getting a better sense of when students are struggling with the course content. Clicker questions can also help students maintain focus during complicated material. “Breaking up the lecture and letting students talk among themselves energizes the room,” says Dr. Stelzer.

Use the clicker in every class and ask three to five questions an hour

Using the clicker regularly helps students make a habit of bringing the clicker to class. Intersperse the lecture with questions rather than clumping them together. “The questions should be on the main points of your lecture. Pick what you think is most important because that’s what they’ll remember,” suggests Dr. Stelzer.

Ask challenging clicker questions that encourage discussion

Use high-level questions rather than simple fact-based ones. Students should be able to reason and discuss their way to an answer based on what you have taught. In his neurobiology class at Concordia, Robert Cassidy used clicker questions to encourage students to talk to each other about the material. They all vote on the clicker question. “Then I ask them to find someone with a different answer, discuss it with them and come to an agreement and then we revote,” says Dr. Cassidy.

Give some participation points for clicker use

Dr. Stelzer says giving points to students for clicker use is a good motivator, so if they respond to at least 75 percent of the clicker questions, they get full marks for participation. This means students won’t be anxious if they miss a question or forget their clicker at home one day.

For more information about the clicker, you can consult the University of British Columbia’s resource guide at


http://www.cwsei.ubc.ca/resources/clickers.htm

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