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Clickity Click! Part 1 July 9, 2006

Posted by gordonwatts in university.

A while I posted about driving science students out of, well, science. There was a lot of feedback there – read it if you have a chance and are interested in that sort of thing (I’m still mulling it over).

But. Clickers! One of the way many lecturers have attempted to increase interactivity is by using clickers. The professor can pose a multiple choice question, the students then use a small device to register their answer. A bar graph had be shown in class that gives the responses. These things were invented by Harvard professor Eric Mazur a long time ago. The motivate in several fold. Anyone who has taught knows that only a small fraction of a large class is willing to respond verbally. Further, if you do manage to make the large class to fully respond a herd mentality can quickly set in. Students who are unsure of themselves will see which way the wind is blowing and instead of taking the time to think it through will go with the prevailing opinion: peer pressure! The clickers are anonymous: no one knows you are wrong. Clickers are also individual: usually you don’t know what your fellow students are answering until after time is up.

They can also be a surprise to the professor. I remember several years ago asking a question on material that I’d just finished lecturing on. I didn’t think the question required much thinking beyond what I’d just been talking about. The students disagreed by an overwhelming margin!

In principle, I like these devices. The UW physics department started out using clickers by the H-ITT company. The use of these things was pioneered by a lecturer in our department, Daryl Pedigo. The first version, about 3 years ago, was great. These are infrared devices, much like your TV remote control. They were simple with buttons for A-E and a little red light to let you know the answer had been transmitted. They worked well, almost no failures – and it was easy to integrate into the lecture’s flow. This is important, because we have so much material to cover (see post) that if we have to slow down to take care of technology issues, well, it really pisses us teachers off. But since then there have been at least two upgrades to the technology. The first upgrade was a disaster, and the second one was halfway between a disaster and the first functioning system. Lots of failures. Perhaps a student’s battery runs low, but the clicker still seems to work, but you have to hold the clicker up to the wall mounted sensor – not something that a student in a class that seats 200 people can do! Or answers would just not register for any obvious reason. By the end of this year I was rarely using the clicker questions because I’d become so technology shy of the things and the malfunctions and the amount of time they were adding to the lecture and how much their malfunctions were pissing off the students.

So, the situation needed to be addressed! More in Part II…



1. Nate Bottman - July 9, 2006

Yes — frankly, I think that lectures would have been marginally better, for me at least, without any clickers. I was always paranoid that my clicker would destroy my grade, as it failed once out of every two times… though, of course, this probably isn’t a good representative response.

2. paula - July 9, 2006

There are two schools of thought about giving grades for clicker responses. Some professors give a (micro)grade for a correct answer, while others give a grade for participation, which makes it easier to use questions that are bound to elicit incorrect responses from a majority of students (the general rule of thumb is to aim for about 50% right and 50% wrong to get a real conversation going). There is the possibility that students won’t make an effort, they’ll just push a random button, but some profs claim they don’t see that effect.

3. Michael - July 9, 2006

As a victim of clickers as both an undergraduate and graduate TA, I’ve come to believe they are downright evil if they are used to grade the students. From the student’s perspective, it’s extremely stressful to be graded on unknown questions during the lecture, and makes it hard to concentrate or think creatively about the subject matter. Instead, there’s just one thought – “What will I be graded on next?” As a graduate TA responsible for collecting the clicker data and assigning grades to the students, I found it a technological nightmare. I could often spend about many hours each week dealing with malfunctions, and felt this significantly eating into the time I might have used to prepare for the recitation sections.

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