What 6 Years of Study Says About Using Clickers in the Classroom

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Students at University of Hawaii - West Oahu use clickers.

After six years of study, more than 3,000 student surveys, nearly 40 interviews, close to 700 anonymous written responses, and numerous observations of students in classes across four disciplines, Dr. Angel Hoekstra knows a thing or two about how to use clickers in the classroom.

Among her findings, the symbolic interactionist (she studies how students construct meaning around the use of technology) and sociology professor at the University of Colorado – Boulder, says the biggest was this: the technology is reliable and easy to use, but the pedagogy is challenging.

Here’s what she learned.

2 Reasons Students Resist Clickers

Hoekstra says student resistance is the result of preconceptions about clicker use.

They think clickers are attendance tracking devices.  Often, all students know is that clickers are used in large science classes to track attendance. And these students, who are just beginning to discover and claim their independence, resent the additional accountability. Consequently, they feel patronized and they withdrawal.

They think clickers won’t work. After students spend $40-60 on a clicker, they expect a return on investment and when it doesn’t happen because of infrequent or poorly designed use, they get frustrated. Whether they’ve had a negative experience in the past, or hear from their peers how clickers aren’t worth the money, they’re likely to push back against professors who request the purchase.

4 Dos + a Don’t of Effective Clicker Use in Large Lecture Classes

Overcoming student resistance depends on effective implementation. Once students understand your objectives and experience the benefits of clickers, they’ll be more receptive.

In fact, a recent Chronicle survey showed a direct correlation between how much students value a learning technology and how well their professors use it. While clickers came up short on both fronts, adhering to the following best practices will increase the likelihood of successful implementation.

Read the literature.  According to Hoekstra, who has contributed much to the collection of academic literature on clickers, if you don’t understand what the research, your plans are likely to backfire. Start with this bibliography from Vanderbilt University, which as of August 1, 2012, includes 283 entries.

Talk to your students about why you’re using clickers. It’s crucial to explain at the beginning of the semester (and sometimes beyond) the ways in which you believe clickers will benefit student learning. Especially in social sciences courses, Hoekstra says it doesn’t make intuitive sense to students why clickers are a useful learning tool.  Reinforcing your purpose is important.

Bookend questions around concepts. Rather than ask questions at the beginning and end of class, which communicates that clickers are just an attendance device, Hoekstra says to ask questions as you introduce and conclude new concepts. “Students like it when clicker questions are used like this because it shows them where concepts begin and end,” she says. “The point is to use them periodically so students have something to do every 15-20 minutes.”

Ask questions to prompt critical thinking and discussion. “The point is to get students thinking critically about the concepts you’re teaching,” Hoekstra says. “So when professors ask questions like, ‘Are you here today?’ it makes students feel like they’re being treated like high schoolers.” One of the greatest benefits of clickers is that they can fill a silent lecture hall with noise. For example, you can ask a question, review the results as a class, and then ask students to share their thoughts with a neighbor.

Don’t use smartphones in place of radio-frequency devices. Smartphone apps are unreliable and counter-productive substitutes for clickers. Unlike dedicated clicker devices, smartphones require a satellite connection to work. When that connection is weak or 500 students in the lecture hall next door are also trying to tap into it, the data gets jumbled if it even shows up at all. Further, “When we bring cell phones into the classroom, everybody’s on Facebook, everybody’s shopping, everybody’s looking at baseball stats. It’s atrocious,” says Hoekstra, who once recorded a student using his smartphone 18 times in a 50-minute class period.

An Example of Effective Clicker Use

So, what does this look like in a real class? Hoekstra shared an example from her Drugs and U.S. Society class.

The day she lectures about the effects of alcohol on the body, she begins by asking students an anonymous question: “Have you ever driven under the influence of alcohol such that if you’d gotten pulled over you probably would have gone to jail?” To ease students’ concerns about anonymity, she asks them to turn to a random neighbor and trade clickers. They then choose an answer from among the multiple choice responses.

Following collection of the responses, Hoekstra gives a 20-minute lecture on the effects of alcohol on the body. She concludes the lecture with another clicker question: “Given all this data, do you think it’s likely you’ll drink and drive again?” Inevitably, a few admit they will.

This, Hoekstra says, is a great jumping off point for a honest and critical discussion about how to legislate drinking to prevent drunken driving accidents.

Read more about clicker use in this class here.

If you use clickers in the classroom, please share in the comments your own dos and don’ts below!

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