26 May 2009

On clickers

A good overview of a promising technology to enhance large lecture teaching; but as ever 80% of the functionality can be addressed by giving students coloured cards to wave. It could not be simpler.
  • Think of the maximum number of alternatives you might want in a multiple-choice quiz. Four? Somehow issue each of your students with four different coloured cards. Say, red, yellow, green, blue.
  • Now you can stop your lecture at any point and pose a quiz, to check understanding of a particular point. Just put up a slide wutlipleith the multiple-choice answers, each associated with a particular colour. On your mark get everyone to show... you can take it from there.
  • But red and green in particular have strong connotations... You can use them to monitor understanding of points you have made--or prior understanding. All that is needed is a verbal cue. "Have you got that? If you're pretty sure, show green and I'll move on. If you are a bit 'iffy' show amber and I'll check out where the problems are. If you haven't a clue, show red and I'll go over it again..."
Since I don't commonly lecture to large groups, I had largely experienced this "technology" as a member of the audience, and only used it as a lecturer for demo purposes. A few weeks ago a colleague and I were team-teaching a group of about 400 students, and we used the technique. We had planned to use it just two or three times. But the feedback was so vivid and immediate and the students took to it so well, we used it much more than that. You could see clusters of students who had problems, for example, so it was possible to go to them and find out the specific issue. On a couple of occasions there were students waving red cards without being prompted; they didn't understand and it was much easier to do that than to speak up about in a group of 400.

Clickers are more flexible, and they are remarkably cheap (especially if each student buys their own and uses it over their college career and then sells it on...) But bits of cardboard? Must be the biggest ever return on investment in educational technology!

And of course I would be remiss not to acknowledge and thank Phil Race, who has refined the use of cardboard and post-it notes to a fine art, as a minor gloss on a great career. I'm delighted to hear that he is continuing his assocation with Leeds Met in an emeritus capacity.

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At 4:07 PM , Anonymous Derek said...

I think one can get a lot of mileage out of the use of flashcards as described here. However, I think that clickers offer a few key advantages over flashcards. One, clickers allow instructors to hold students accountable for their responses, motivating students to participate. Two, clickers allow students, not just instructors, to see the distribution of responses, which can often have a very positive effect (for example, when students find out that 80% of them answer a question incorrectly and are thus motivated to hear the correct answer). Three, students using flashcards can be tempted to see how their peers respond before responding themselves, yielding less accurate data about student understanding for instructors to use in making on-the-fly teaching decisions.

There are a couple of interesting research articles that explore these differences: Stowell & Nelson (2007) and Lasry (2008), both of which I've blogged about.


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