Clickers were once Troy Wood’s hobby, this thing he tinkered with as a college educator. Then he got more serious about them, to the point where they also became, at various points in time, his Achilles’ heel, his moon mission and the bane of his existence. That’s what happens when you’re an early adopter of educational technology.

“I started using classroom response in 2002, and back in those days we had receivers that we literally had to bring to the classroom with us, which was a management nightmare,” recalls the SUNY Buffalo professor, who teaches general chemistry and analytical chemistry to freshmen and sophomores respectively. “Students had to point their device at these receivers. Then we moved to an infrared system, and that turned out to be really problematic.” He became so flustered by what he felt was a high-potential idea hampered by poor technology, he abandoned his clicker experiment in frustration for a period of years.

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Wood rediscovered classroom response systems in 2011, or about three years following the commercial introduction of the iPhone. When he learned that Top Hat was using student smartphones to double as clicker devices, with responses submitted via Wi-Fi, his reaction was, “I’m going to try again. Students are bringing their cell phones all of the time to class anyway. And I’m tired of fighting against that. Now I’m going to embrace it.”

I have actually gained time because of doing this.

Troy Wood, Associate Professor at University at Buffalo

There was just one problem: Wood himself had never owned a cell phone, and had no familiarity whatsoever with smartphone apps. He worried that he’d never figure out the technology and that, even if he did, it would stump his students. “My teenage son said to me, ‘Dad, we’re not like you. This won’t be a problem for students. If you can figure it out in the lecture hall, they’ll have it figured out too.’”

In the end, Wood figured it out well enough to earn an A+. The technology had advanced to the point where it was robust and reliable, and he didn’t even need to own a smartphone himself in order to make it work. (He uses an iPad, and people who want to reach him send him e-mails.) And once he became adept at using the technology, he realized he was suddenly sitting on a goldmine of student learning data—data that could make him a more effective teacher.

“I used to look at the data from a pretty simplistic standpoint,” he says. “I’d get the means, the standard deviations, the distribution of the grades, and somehow I was satisfied with that.” He’d never considered what it might mean to have every individual student response collected, aggregated and instantly tabulated. Once it was put in front of him, the lightbulb went on. “The system collects this data so easily, it’s really straightforward for an instructor to go back and look at it and say, ‘Aha. This is what they have inferred incorrectly, because this is how they’re responding. And I know how to address that point.’”

Wood no longer organizes class time around his lectures, but around his clicker. He’ll ask as many classroom response questions as he can muster and check the results in real time. If he sees a common mistake, he’ll stop and address it; if not he’ll move on. “It turns out that by using the classroom response systems, I’ve become much more efficient in my lectures,” he says. “I have actually gained time because of doing this.”

And he is not, he insists, falling prey to one of the common misgivings about classroom response: that it’s limited to multiple-choice recall questions that don’t really advance students’ conceptual understanding. He gives the example of using Top Hat’s click on target questions, which ask students to identify parts of an image or graph and shows a “heat map” of the most common answers. Wood loves to use this function with chemistry’s canon, the periodic table. “I can ask them, what part of the periodic table has the lowest ionization energy? The highest electron affinity? And wow, do you ever find out what their misconceptions are.” And because the data is tabulated immediately, Wood can correct those misconceptions on the spot.

Classroom response systems and research

Wood agrees that there isn’t much in the way of academic research on the effectiveness of classroom response systems. “I think it’s probably one of the areas in educational journals that we have not seen enough publications, and part of it may be that designing the study appropriately is not trivial.” That said, the literature is slowly growing. One recent study, from the National University of Ireland Maynooth, found that clickers increase student engagement and interactivity, and have “the potential to enhance and improve learning.”

The lack of research on clickers is partly a function of their non-ubiquity: although they are a popular topic in any discussion of teaching and learning practices, Top Hat’s 2018 Professor Pulse survey found that only 13 percent of faculty use such systems in their classrooms. Even so, Wood feels that the weight of anecdotal evidence falls heavily in favor of clickers, based on conversations with other faculty members who use them—as well as his own years of endless tinkering.

“I have enough data from my own experience,” Wood says. For his most recent analytical chemistry class, he says, “this has been the semester I’ve been the most aggressive about asking classroom response questions. I had asked over 70 questions in class, so about five a day. For the first time, I had no failures on exam one. I always have an expectation that there’s going to be a handful, maybe five to ten percent of people, that fail. No one did. I was amazed.”

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