Clicking to Learn: Interactive Learning Technology Improves Class Participation, Attendance

Clicking to Learn
Interactive Learning Technology Improves Class Participation, Attendance

"You think it's B? I'm pretty sure it's C."
"No way. It's totally B."
"Really? Why?"
"Put down your clicker and I'll show you."
A crowd of nearly 150 students sits in a campus lecture hall at 7:50 A.M. on a Thursday, but despite the early hour, the classroom is packed and nearly all the students are wide awake and clutching brightly colored devices that resemble remote controls. After a few minutes of discussion, the two undergraduate students, Jessica and Lynsie, come to an agreement, point their devices at a small box near the upper corner of the hall, and thirty seconds later, they smile and give each other a quiet high-five when they learn they were correct.

Similar scenarios occur frequently in each of the Physics 7A lectures. Following up on a successful campus pilot program, the Physics Department decided to implement an interactive learning process called "Personal Response Systems" or "clickers." Thanks to the successful implementation of this technology, all introductory physics classes are now using a historically passive device -- the remote control -- to improve active participation between instructors and students, enhance collaboration between classmates, boost attendance, and revitalize the traditional learning experience.

A Real Conversation with 200 Students

As with many introductory science classes, the Physics 7 series is taught in large lecture halls that hold hundreds of students at one time. With so many students, it is a challenge to ensure that the majority of the class understands what is being discussed. Use of the Personal Response System helps bridge this gap, as even the quietest, shyest students tend to use their clickers. "The use of clickers has given me the chance to participate more frequently than I would in a regular classroom," says Abhi Kalavapudi, an undergraduate majoring in Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior.

This direct, instantaneous feedback from everyone in class proves useful to instructors. "It gives me the only way I have found to carry on something like a real conversation with 200 students," says David Webb, a lecturer in the Physics Department. Students seem to appreciate the immediate follow-up when dealing with particularly difficult concepts. "I like the way the professor talks through the incorrect answers and explains why they aren't right when there are too many people who didn't agree on the correct answer," says Jessica Alonso, who is pursuing a double major in Psychology and Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior.

System Encourages Attendance

Again proving that the best way to learn a subject is by teaching it to someone else, the Physics 7 students seem to understand key concepts more thoroughly because they need to explain their reasoning to their fellow classmates. They are often encouraged by the instructor to collaborate before responding. "When my neighbor and I disagree on the answer, we each have to figure out an explanation to defend the answer we've chosen, which forces a little more thinking on the subject at hand," shares Alonso.

Students and Instructors Stay Engaged

The interactive nature of the clicker questions, which are typically sprinkled throughout the lecture, keeps students and the instructor actively involved in the learning experience. Since the clicker responses are automatically catalogued, instructors can easily track who is coming to class and how often they are participating. Students are well aware of this fact, and so empty seats at lecture are a rarity. "The use of clickers has improved my attendance," reveals Kalavapudi. "I think that the more interactive classrooms get, the more students can come out learning, rather than the conventional methods 10 to 20 years ago. On the whole, clickers as an interactive tool can help stimulate even the non-motivated students in the classroom."

Webb points out that instructors will initially have to invest some time preparing for lectures. "Writing good questions takes time and experience," explains Webb, "and planning the lecture takes some extra thought." Students also don't like having to buy the remotes, which are used only for a few classes. However, the Physics Department has worked with the vendor and the UC Davis Bookstore to provide mail-in rebates that cover a majority of the cost. Mindful of these challenges, instructors like Webb plan to continue using the Personal Response System. "A professor in the Physics Department once said, 'A lecture can be a magical event where words that are written in the professor's notes appear in the student's notes without passing through the brains of either,'" says Webb. "This is what I hope to avoid with the clickers. Let's get everyone's brain into gear."

Technology Engages Students

Personal Response Systems are designed to encourage every student to participate in class by way of a remote control or "clicker." At different points throughout the lecture, the instructor presents students with a multiple-choice question; the students then decide their response, point their clickers at one of the small infrared boxes installed in the classroom, and click the button that corresponds to their answer. A software program compiles the answers and a graph detailing student responses is projected onto the screen for the entire class to see. The correct response is also highlighted, so the students know if they are on the right track. The instructor is immediately aware of any concepts or topics that may need further discussion or clarification. Each student enrolled in a class using the response system purchases a clicker at the bookstore (prices range from $25 to $30). Students then register their clickers with the professor so their student identification numbers will be recognized and recorded when they answer questions. Individual responses are not displayed to the class, but are recorded for the instructor's use (for example, to track attendance). Learn more at cts.ucdavis.edu/prs/index.htm.

How Clickers Work
  • Student uses clicker to answer a question on screen (the last four digits of the student's identifier appear at the bottom of the screen as confirmation the student's response was recorded).
  • The lower screen begins to fill with response confirmations as time winds down.
  • After the allotted time has expired, the tabulated student responses are shown as a bar graph. The correct response here was chosen by a small percentage of the class, so the instructor immediately knows that more discussion is needed on this topic.
Learn More About Personal Response Systems

Classroom Technology Services, in conjunction with the Office of the University Registrar, has installed Personal Response System equipment in several classrooms. Systems are installed in 55 Roessler Hall, 66 Roessler Hall, and 106 Olson Hall. Faculty and staff interested in using a Personal Response System can obtain more information -- including best practices and links to examples of Personal Response System use at other campuses -- at cts.ucdavis.edu/prs.