The Surprising Effect of Clickers in the Writing Class

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Students at University of Hawaii - West Oahu use clickers.

Jan Worth-Nelson has specific and detailed workshop guidelines for her creative writing class: “begin by responding to what you think the essay is about;” “see if you can find a way to describe the ‘voice’ of the essay;” “when you say you like something, try to continue your commentary with something that suggests why you like it.”

For years, though, despite telling her students exactly what to do, Nelson often felt the workshops fell short of her expectations.

So when she and a few colleagues at the University of Michigan-Flint began researching the effect of clickers on student learning, she took the opportunity to reinforce workshop procedures.

If their hypothesis proved true — that students would better retain information they learned using clickers — the quality of the writing workshops would improve.

A Clicker Model That (Kind Of) Worked

Throughout the semester, Nelson asked her students both non-clicker and clicker questions designed to test their knowledge of workshop procedures among other things.

Later, when she quizzed students using the exact questions she had posed in class, she determined that, in fact, they seemed to better retain information from the clicker questions. (The results from the other classes proved inconclusive.)

Still, she was unsatisfied.

Students complained. Clickers didn’t work. And most of all, workshops didn’t improve.

There had to be a better way.

How the Clicker Rating Scale Dramatically Improved Writing Workshops

Nelson decided that rather than use clickers to test procedural knowledge, she’d have students use them during the workshop itself.

So, one by one, she’d take a student’s anonymous rough draft, place it on the document camera, have a volunteer read it aloud, and require students to rate it on a scale of 1-10 according to the assignment criteria.

“Does this memoir make good use of sensory detail to support its contentions and tell its story?” she’d ask, and then wait for each student to click in their 1-10 rating.

After viewing the results, the class would launch into an in-depth discussion about how the essay measured up against the criteria.

Suddenly, all students were sharing, not just the talkative ones, and writers received actionable feedback for their revisions.

In fact, at times, results prompted audible gasps from students, which Nelson attributes to the fact that often students think everyone will just agree with them, so they’re surprised when they realize there are differences of opinion around the table.

Further, Nelson said the collective response was powerful feedback for students. Sometimes the teacher’s opinion is not enough to convince a student of the strengths and weaknesses in his or her essay. “I can point out if everyone who rated this essay had trouble with the clarity, you need to go back to the drawing board,” she says.

A Surprising Discovery about Clickers in the Writing Class

Nelson did many of the things research has determined to be best practice in using clickers, like the following:

  1. Talking to students about clicker use. She explained the rationale for clicker use in the syllabus, talked about it in class, and conducted a test run before using clickers for the first time.
  2. Asking questions that prompt critical thinking. ”There’s an art to designing questions so that people really have to think about them,” Nelson says. “The subjectivity of the rating scale is very much congruent with the nature of the class. So, these are not black and white, yes and no, closed questions. These are questions that are going to lead to lots of discussion.”
  3. And, using results as a trigger for class discussion. After students rate the essays, she asks them questions like, “Those who rated the writer’s use of sensory detail as a 3 or 4, why did you give that rating?”

But as Director of the Thompson Center for Teaching and Learning, she believes successful teaching is more than adhering to best practices.

“The practice alone doesn’t do it. We have to be the best practitioner,” she says. “I think that’s no more true than in using clickers. [...] One of the things I keep preaching to the faculty is that they have a responsibility to use [clickers] correctly and intelligently and pay attention to the results.”

In particular, Nelson says she was surprised that clickers improved an aspect of her teaching she’d been working on for more than 20 years: wait time.

As time went on using clickers to facilitate writing workshops, she realized that as she waited for each student to answer questions with his or her clicker, she was forced to slow down her teaching and make room for learning.

“The learning actually takes place in the moment of the click or in that consideration of how they’re going to answer,” Nelson says. “What will tend to happen when you pose a question in class is the talkative people will answer right away and then you kind of go on to the next question instead of asking what everyone else thinks. So, I found that [clickers] have slowed me down as a teacher in a way that is really appropriate and relevant.”

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