From a faculty standpoint, there seems to be nothing terribly complicated about interrupting a lecture three or four times per class to ask students a quick question. In fact many professors are already in such a habit, and don’t need any technology to assist them, so why bother?

In this extract from our new e-book, How to Use Clickers in Your College Classroom, we look at the historic and modern-day reasons a professor might want to use classroom response systems such as clickers — and some of the pitfalls, too.

The pros of clickers

The first and most basic advantage of clickers is that they immediately broaden student participation beyond the front row. The act of raising your hand to answer a question, particularly in large classrooms, requires a substantial measure of courage, pluck and extroversion. Clickers remove those barriers. As one study recently put it, “students enjoy the anonymity associated with clicker use. Students are not afraid of being embarrassed if their answer is not the correct one and can easily check their understanding of the material.”

Indeed, in many cases, students are encouraged to discuss a clicker question with their neighbors for two minutes before answering, which brings us to the second advantage of clickers: they are a welcome disruption from lecturing that can lead to active learning. “Clickers aren’t necessarily designed for peer learning, but that’s what they should be used for,” says Stephanie Chasteen, an instructor with the University of Colorado Boulder and an educational consultant who writes about active learning in STEM classrooms. “The best questions are the ones that prompt discussion.”

The third benefit of classroom response systems is the immediate feedback they provide to both students and their instructors. For students, compiling and displaying responses immediately allows them to assess their understanding and also adds a sense of anticipation to lecture proceedings. Faculty, meanwhile, can assess both individual and group results and course correct accordingly. “Students respond to their professor’s question, and then their prof gets to respond to their answer,” says Brian Roberts, Instructional Technology Coordinator at Central Michigan University. The result, says Roberts, is that it helps professors stay engaged too, by keeping them alive to the moment at hand. “They have to decide: am I moving on, or am I stopping to go over the material again?”

The cons of clickers

The first disadvantage of using clickers is that professors must learn how to use the technology, and how to successfully integrate it into their class time. “Clickers will absolutely improve student participation, faculty-student and student-to-student interactions—provided that the faculty member puts in the time to learn how to use them,” says Roberts. “You have to climb the learning curve to get the full benefit of the technology.” Reputable companies will assist professors with training and onboarding to help manage best practices, but there will likely still be “we are experiencing technical difficulties” moments, especially in the early going.

The second challenge of clickers is that the active learning and peer discussion they foster, while productive, takes up class time—which can mean that professors will be covering less material than they would by lecture alone. And if students’ clicker responses show that they’re having difficulty learning something, faculty must be nimble enough to adjust lesson plans on the fly. “What professors do after the response is really important,” says Chasteen. “Many are too curt: they show the histogram of results and move on, rather than exploring and correcting students’ misconceptions.”

A third challenge is how students perceive value. For handheld systems, they’re expected to purchase their own clicker at a typical cost of $60; app-based clickers typically charge a more affordable subscription fee. Faculty have little control over the cost, but they do influence student perceptions of value for money. “What students dislike the most is paying for the system and then discovering that their professors rarely use it,” says Roberts.

But when a clicker is used to create a more active environment that improves learning results, its value is clear to the class.

The payoff

The biggest reason to adopt clickers, is that both active learning in general, and clickers in particular, improve teaching, learning and student outcomes. One recent study found that students in traditional stand-and-deliver lecture courses are 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in active-learning classrooms.

Others confirm the positive correlation between clicker-integrated instruction and improved academic outcomes. The bottom line is that classroom response systems are most effective when they are part of a broader change: a move away from lecturing and passive learning and towards a more active classroom from start to finish.

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A complete guide to using clickers in the classroom

How to Use Clickers in Your College ClassroomTheory is all well and good, but what about practice? Read our interviews with profs to learn some real-life techniques on effectively using clickers to improve learning.

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