Clickers: voting for learning

hand holding clicker keypadPersonal response system ‘clickers’ have been in use at Sussex since 2009 when they were featured in the second issue of RUSTLE. Since then, the use of clickers has grown and spread across campus so it seemed a good time to look again at some of the ways in which this technology is being used to enhance student learning. The TurningPoint system used at Sussex allows tutors to embed multiple choice questions into PowerPoint slides, then poll students using small key pads and display the results. You can see many examples of clickers in action on YouTube and the TLDU collection of web links includes more literature and case studies outlining how other institutions are using them.

This technology is being used in several distinct ways at Sussex. Cath Holmström (Social Work) uses clicker questions at the beginning of a seminar to establish pre-existing understanding or beliefs. On a law module, which students approach with some trepidation, the clickers help Cath to find out what students think about a particular topic (for example, the age of legal responsibility in the UK and other countries) before they are ‘taught’ anything. Being able to visualise the extent of disagreement in the room through anonymous voting helps to get debate and discussion going and Cath has even structured a whole session around 12 clicker questions where ‘responses to each question led to discussion that covered the whole of the intended content’. This meant that she was ‘really working with what prior knowledge was in the room’ and the clickers worked as ‘a bit of an ice-breaker’ as well as allowing her to check engagement as the counter shows how many people have responded to each question. You can also pose comparative questions where students are asked their views, then a debate is run or students are given a different perspective or shown how to do something, before polling the same question again to see how views or levels of confidence have changed. It is also possible to carry out a demographic comparison; after initial questions that collect some demographic information from responders (anonymously) it is possible to see answers to subsequent questions broken down by a demographic grouping such as gender, subject group, home country, age, experience, role etc. The Doctoral School used this type of question at their launch to find out about people’s preferences for support depending on whether they were a research student, postdoc, research assistant or academic supervisor.

More commonly, clickers are used in large lectures to check students’ understanding of material and this is what Bernhard Reus (Informatics) has been doing. This is something that would previously have been done by asking students to raise their hand, but some are reluctant to do that, especially if they do not feel confident about their answer. Bernhard has found that he gets a better response with clickers because ‘it is something different and fun and since it is anonymous students are happy to participate’, though he is looking forward to the day that all students have Smartphones and he can use an app to replace the need for special hardware.

If you are using clickers for checking understanding you might also try introducing a ‘Think-Pair-Share’ activity where students are shown a question, answer it individually then are shown the results of the vote – but not the answer. If there is a spread of answers students are asked to discuss the question with one or two others for a minute or two before voting again. The new results are shown and the topic is opened up for discussion before finally explaining the correct answer if necessary.

Asking clicker questions is a great way of getting and giving feedback on students’ learning in large lectures, but Belinda Hackney (Sussex Centre for Language Studies) has found that this is also a good use for the technology in smaller settings. She explains that ‘we set up regular formative language development activities (for Reading / Writing / Listening), but frequently marking individual scripts and giving feedback can be time-consuming. Using a clicker questionnaire and seeing all the responses enables you to monitor comprehension and mastery, as well as encourage discussion or Speaking practice in the (target) language.This quick response feedback allows us to modify the content for the following sessions’. Belinda finds that picture questions are very useful in language learning as pictures can be used to identify, extend use of vocabulary and even compare and contrast. In future, she sees potential in asking students to write their own questions – in the target language, either before or during the session. This might also be useful in courses where students are going to be collecting data themselves; clickers could be used to let students test out questions they have prepared for a questionnaire as part of a research project. They could type their question into TurningPoint in the class and test it out on their peers, receiving feedback on clarity, construction, leading language etc. as well as seeing the spread of results.

All of these different clicker activities introduce variety into sessions and this is something that Xavier Calmet (Physics) is keen to do. Whilst convinced that for most Physics courses ‘chalk and blackboard are still best as students want to see derivations’ for foundation year courses where there is less mathematics and more need to ‘show empirical rules and try to motivate students’ different teaching methods such as ‘powerpoints, videos and multiple choice questions’ are effective. Xavier says that using clickers means that he can ‘get instant feedback and check whether they have understood what I was talking about’ while students look forward to these activities which break up the session and ‘give them a moment to relax a bit’. When he first came to Sussex, Xavier tried getting this sort of engagement from students using voting cards but found that ‘only a small fraction of the group answered using them’ whereas now that the school has decided to issue clickers to all students they are ‘more willing to participate and even ask questions themselves … clickers are a good way to get feedback when people are a bit shy’.

This sort of feedback on student learning is particularly useful to tutors planning revision. Mirela Xheneti  and Monica Masucci (Business, Management and Economics) ran a clicker session at the end of the course they convene  ‘to check students’ progress and identify those areas where there were weaknesses so we could cover them in the revision sessions’. Mirela found that the most challenging part of the process was writing good questions. As this was the first year that the course had run it was difficult to know which areas students were finding most challenging, but next year there won’t be so many easy questions! For the students, it was not immediately clear how the multiple choice clicker questions were helping them to prepare for a different type of assessment, so if you are using clickers (or any learning activities) it is worth spending a little time explaining their purpose. If you are going to use clickers to help you plan a revision session you might want to try a priority ranking question which gives each clicker 3 votes which are weighted so students can vote three times for one key topic they would like to cover or for 3 different options in order of priority. Priority ranking questions would also be good for mid-term course evaluation, or you could engage students even more by getting them to discuss ideas for improvements in groups, without any pre-formed suggestions, then create the answer options live in class to reflect their ideas before asking each individual to vote for their top three suggestions. You could also use Likert scale questions (strongly agree to strongly disagree) to find out what students think of ideas you have to improve the module.

Social Work have taken this one step further by using clickers to collect data for evaluating courses. Cath explained that they like to supplement the online Course Evaluation Questionnaires (CEQs) with clicker sessions that evaluate students’ experience of their degree as a whole over the year. The department already collects a lot of qualitative data through other activities and discussions but wanted to capture some hard, quantitative data that they could compare year on year. Using questions very like those in the National Student Survey (NSS) the clickers allow tutors and students to see immediately what the responses are and the discussions that follow have been very productive. After the session the data can be easily exported into Excel for analysis and incorporation into reports.

Everyone we spoke to about clickers were impressed by the way that the technology provided this sort of ‘constant feedback loop’ with students and tutors getting a good picture of progress and areas that need more attention, but inevitably with a new technology there were some niggles. Sometimes, even with training and support, things go wrong: The TurningPoint software does not work very well with Mac computers, and sometimes people need to try different USB ports before the signal works well, but generally these glitches seem to be taken in good spirit by students – in fact Xavier jokes that he sometimes makes mistakes on purpose because students find them very funny and they break the ice.

At the moment, the TLDU has about 450 clickers that they can lend out in small sets to colleagues who want to try using them, but this does mean that the equipment has to be booked in advance, collected from and returned to Essex House after each use. Some time is also needed in the session (especially with large groups) for handing out and collecting back the handsets, but if you are using clickers for the first time or if you have a very large group to distribute clickers to, Jan Pryse will try to join you just before the class to help make sure all is set-up and running well.

Some departments that have tried them over the last few years are now starting to buy their own sets of clickers and some are even issuing clickers to students on a termly or yearly basis so that they always have one with them. A shortage of clickers may not always be a bad thing, though, as it can be really effective to run a team quiz where a clicker is shared between several students who answer questions as a team and the software will display a leader board to show how each team is doing. This can work well to create a lively fun and slightly competitive atmosphere and can be good as an icebreaker.

If you are interested in using clickers in your teaching a good place to start is the Technology Hands-on session run by TLDU each term (the next session is on 3rd July 2012) or the Using Clickers workshop. There are also links to handouts and online tutorials on the TLDU website and Jan Pryse is always happy to talk to colleagues about using clickers.

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2 Responses to Clickers: voting for learning

  1. Pingback: Learning the lingo – helping students with discipline-specific vocabulary. | TLDU @ University of Sussex

  2. Pingback: Am I a hybrid teacher? | Teaching Talk

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