Using Clickers in the Classroom

Classroom clickers have been adopted in lectures as a means to keep attendance and make assessments about student learning. The most straightforward use of clickers would allow instructors to record and track attendance by asking students questions during the lecture. Clickers would allow opportunities to quiz students at various points in the lecture to make sure that they are following and understanding the content of the lecture. Using this approach, instructors use technology to conveniently encourage attendance, and to pace the class according to assessment of student understanding. For these reasons alone, clickers offer real value in the classroom, especially the large lecture. There are also other worthwhile and creative uses for clickers that go beyond these obvious uses. Clickers can be used to facilitate student participation and peer engagement. This is especially valuable in large lecture classrooms where the logistics of student participation becomes difficult due to the sheer size of these classes. Technology has the potential to encourage participation, and can allow voices to the students.

Instead of using clickers to gage students’ understanding of lecture content, clickers can be used to gage what they know when they walk into the classroom. Erik Mazur, in Peer Instruction, encouraged quizzing students at the beginning of class to assess what they already know, and to ensure they did preparatory reading for the course. If these preliminary quizzes are a portion of their grade, they serve as incentive to encourage students to prepare for the course. Clickers can also be used to poll students on their opinions. Differing opinions have the potential to spark debate and discussion in the classroom. More subjective clicker questions allow students to voice their opinions, and in the history classroom, it could be used by students to vote on differing interpretations of the historical content covered in the class. This could serve as a starting point for discussion on differing interpretations of the past. And could also spark discussion on what arguments and evidence students find convincing. Clickers can be used to assess pre-existing knowledge, and can be used to question and explore how historical arguments are made.

Clickers and their ability to quiz students can be used beyond merely getting a sense of whether students can retain content or not. If students are presented questions throughout class, it is likely that there will be students who chose different answers. Even if there is one correct answer, and many students choose incorrectly, this could serve as a positive opportunity. Instead of using differing answers as an indicator that the instructor needs to slow down and reiterate the content they have already covered, differing answers could be the beginning of engaging conversation in the classroom. Mazur advocated peer learning, where students were required to convince other students of their answers to a question. Although Mazur encouraged this approach to take place in smaller groups, this could work on a classroom scale. Using clickers to quiz students, then displaying the answers for students to see, will allow students to see how answers differ. The instructor does not need to quickly dismiss all incorrect answers, but should allow students who picked different answers to explain the logic behind their choice. This would allow for a complex understanding of why some answers are better than others. Students who answer incorrectly then have to opportunity to understand why they were incorrect, and how those who chose correctly informed their decisions. This approach encourages participation, critical thinking, and learning from peers.

Clickers used for these purposes go beyond some of their more obvious uses. When clickers are only used to track attendance and quiz students, students have a more negative attitude towards them. They become yet another obstacle for students to overcome. However, if clickers are used as a part of activities, and to start conversations, they will elicit more positive responses. This technology can be used to give students a voice in large lectures where they are mostly anonymous, and occupy a passive role. Clickers provide opportunities for students to participate and engage with other students and their ideas.

Last week, I wrote about historical role-play in the classroom. I think that clickers could facilitate this type of classroom exercise throughout the semester. If students are assigned a position in society, or political view, they could vote on issues as their assigned identities would. This is an opportunity for students to think historically, and adopt characters in the classroom. This is just one idea for classroom activity that could illustrate that history is experienced differently by people based on many factors like their beliefs or place in society. Clickers provide students and instructors with a tool to launch discussion and debate in the classroom.

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