Recently I was faced with a teaching challenge: how to incorporate active learning in a huge Introductory Biology lecture of 400+ students. After searching for methods that would be feasible, cost effective, and reasonably simple to implement in the auditorium in which I was teaching, I came up with clickers. Our university has a site license for Reef Polling Software which means I wouldn’t add to the cost for my students—they could use any WiFi enabled device or borrow a handset at no cost. I incorporated at least 4 clicker questions into every class and gave students points for completing the questions. 10% of their grade came from clicker questions and students could get full credit for the day if they answered at least 75% of the questions. I did not give them points for correct answers because I wanted to see what they were struggling to understand.
I’m now a clicker convert for the following 3 reasons:
- Clickers Increase Student Engagement and Attendance
In a class of 400+, it is easy to feel like there is no downside to skipping class since the teacher won’t realize you are gone. By attaching points to completing in-class clicker questions, about 80% of the class attended each day. While I would like perfect attendance, anecdotally this is much better than what my colleagues report for similar classes that don’t use clickers. Students still surfed the internet and slept through class, but there was now more incentive to pay a bit of attention so you didn’t miss the clicker questions. In my opinion, getting to class can be half the battle so the incentive is worth it. In my small classes I like to ask a lot of questions and have students either shout out answers or vote by raising their hands. Often, students won’t all vote or seem to be too embarrassed to choose an answer. I tested out clickers in my small class and found an increased response rate to my questions and that I was more likely to see the full range of student understanding.
- Clickers Help Identify Student Misconceptions in Real Time
Probably the biggest benefit of clickers to my teaching is getting a better sense of what the students are understanding in real time. Many times I put in questions that I thought were ‘gimmes’ and was surprised to see half the class or more getting them wrong. When that happens, I can try giving them a hint or explaining the problem in a different way, having them talk with their group, and then asking them to re-vote. Since I don’t give points for correctness, students don’t feel as pressured and can focus on trying to understand the question. I’m often surprised that students struggle with certain questions. For instance, when asked whether the inner membrane of the mitochondria increases surface area, volume, or both, only half of the students got the correct answer the first time (picture). Since this is a fundamental concept in many areas of biology, seeing their responses made me take time to really explain the right answer and come up with better ways of explaining and visualizing the concept for future semesters.
- Clickers Increase Student Learning (I hope)
At the end of the day, what I really hope any active learning strategy I use is doing is helping students better understand the material. To try to facilitate this, I ask students to work in groups to solve the problems. I walk around the class and listen while they solve the problem. This can help me get an idea of their misconceptions, encourage participation, and provide a less scary way for students to ask questions and interact with me. While working in groups they are explaining their reasoning and learning from each other. Interspersing clicker questions also helps to reinforce the material and make sure students stay engaged.
I’m convinced that clickers are helping to improve my teaching and students seem to agree. Of the 320 students who filled out course evaluations one semester, 76 included positive comments about clicker questions. Here are two of my favorites:
“I like how we had the in-class clicker questions because it made me think harder about the material we were learning about in that moment.”
“I enjoyed doing the clicker questions. If the class disagreed with something she would stop and reteach the main point and hope we would understand. That was really helpful on her part.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t end by thanking the many researchers who have studied how to incorporate clickers into your class to maximize learning. I decided to try them after hearing Michelle Smith talk at the first APS Institute on Teaching and Learning and highly recommend seeing her speak if you have the chance. If you only want to read one paper, I suggest the following:
Smith, Michelle K., et al. “Why peer discussion improves student performance on in-class concept questions.” Science 323.5910 (2009): 122-124.
I hope you will comment with how you use clickers or other strategies to engage large lecture classes. For more resources I’ve found helpful designing my classes click here.