SITT hears some conclusions about 'clickers'

UC Davis instructors have been using "clickers" for long enough to draw initial conclusions about how the wireless devices engage students. On Wednesday, clicker veterans Beth Post and Tor Cross shared a few suggestions.

Post and Cross, both lecturers in the Department of Psychology, talked about the devices--also known as personal response systems--during day three of the Summer Institute on Teaching and Technology.

Instructors use clickers, or small keypads that look like TV remote controls, to electronically ask questions during lectures. Last year a campus evaluation committee chose clickers made by InterWrite as a common standard for UC Davis. About 12 to 15 classes, enrolling about 3,000 students, have been using the devices each quarter. Students can buy them for $45 new or $33 used at the campus bookstore.

Cross and Post used the devices in predominantly large, introductory classes. Cross said she expected her students to buy the devices. Post made them optional, and told her students she would use the devices for demonstrations "that will aid your learning" and earn students extra credit. (Students could also earn extra credit without the clickers.)

Faculty who use clickers, both instructors said, should use them consistently. Otherwise students will forget to bring them to class.

And don't use the devices to punish, Cross advised--make their use a contribution to the class, not a means "to prove to me you're still awake."

Cross listed several uses for the devices:

--For quizzes. She gave short quizzes at the start of class on reading material due that day, to encourage students to read the material before coming in.

--As a concept check, to let an instructor tailor his or her teaching. Asking a few questions during the lecture can verify that students understand your point; if they don't, you can re-address the topic.

--To collect data. This encourages more students to participate in the class.

--For homework. Students can enter their answers to homework questions into the clickers, so that the answers can be instantly gathered in class.

--To demonstrate concepts, and generally engage the students.

Clickers, Cross summarized, have the potential to increase student motivation, engagement and performance, streamline administrative tasks, and improve student evaluations of the instructor--if used effectively.

The devices are not flawless. Post said she also had some horror stories, but described them as caveats, not reasons to swear off using clickers.

"Nearly all of them are based on user-error problems," she said, "predominantly mine." They included "trying to move the quiz questions to the end of the class, then not having enough time to have students sign in and answer all four questions."

"Angry students," Post said, "very angry students."

The most difficult part, Physics Associate Professor Lori Lubin said later at SITT, is choosing good questions that are neither too hard nor too easy. She said she asks three to four questions during a class, to break up the lecture and slow her pace if she's moving through her material too quickly.

The Summer Institute on Teaching and Technology continues Thursday with sessions and workshops on subjects ranging from collaborative assignments to tests and grades in SmartSite. Find the agenda at the SITT 2007 Web site, which will also post material from sessions earlier this week as the material becomes available.