Class Time, Course Content and iClickers

The frequency with which you use clickers can vary depending on the types of questions you’re asking, and how central a component of the course you’d like them to be.  Instructors have successfully used clickers during a single class session (for example, as a review session).  Other instructors have students turn to their clickers four or five times during an hour-long lecture.  Any range of strategies can be successful – overall, students give high evaluation to the use of clickers, and strongly agree that they contribute to their learning* – but avoid requesting or requiring that your students purchase clickers unless you plan to use them regularly.  If you plan to use clickers only occasionally, you may borrow a loaner set (including an instructor hub and up to 100 clickers) from the Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation (CTSI). Please see Testing and Ordering iClickers for details.

When administering individual clicker questions, make sure to give students enough time to read the question and consider the answer.  More complex questions, or questions that require students to perform calculations, may require more time, but most instructors find that about 30 seconds to one minute works for most questions.  The iClicker software will tell you the total number of students who have responded to the question;  this can be a good gauge of how much time is needed for a question (once 75% of the students have responded, give the remaining students an additional 10 or 15 seconds to input their response).  Discussion of answers by the instructor or between students will similarly vary; for small group discussions, try to leave at least one minute per group member (i.e. four minutes for a four person group) to allow everyone the opportunity to participate in the discussion.

If you plan to use clickers regularly, there is no way around the fact that the introduction of clickers will probably necessitate a reduction of the amount of material covered during class, especially if you are using clickers to ask more complex questions and are discussing the responses.  However, clickers can also contribute to student learning and retention to such a degree that students learn more with less.  This happens in two ways: 1) The active learning promoted by clickers improves student retention and understanding of material; and, 2) the metacognition (that is, the development of students’ understanding of their own learning habits and preferences) promoted by clickers improves students’ ability to learn and study independently.

Carl Wieman, a Nobel prize winning physicist and award winning teacher at UBC, provides compelling evidence that teaching in a way that asks students to focus on the process of learning and problem solving can double or triple students’ retention and deep understanding of material.  Not only does this indicate the effectiveness of these interactive techniques, but highlights a consideration that should ultimately serve as a relief to instructors who are concerned about covering substantial course material during lectures.  As expressed (non-cynically, although this excerpt might suggest otherwise) by Professor Michael Dubson at the Physics Education Research Center at the University of Colorado – Boulder (which is affiliated with Professor Wieman’s Science Education Initiative at UBC):

“It’s OK to lecture less, because they’re not listening anyway.”

If, as Professor Wieman’s studies of student learning demonstrate, students can retain a maximum of 30% of material delivered in a traditional lecture format, instructors can comfortably reduce the amount of material covered substantially and still ensure improved student learning in class sessions.

There is, of course, still the matter of making sure that students master the remaining topics that must be covered in the course.  One response taken by instructors who employ clicker technology is to increase the expectations (and support) for independent student learning.  Most frequently, this includes asking students to read the textbook (or other course material) before the relevant lecture (and then assessing student comprehension of the essential concepts through introductory clicker questions).  By employing the techniques described previously – prepping students for the essential upcoming concepts through prefatory clicker questions, asking them to apply or synthesize information in class, and providing them with regular feedback on their own learning, instructors have found that students are better equipped for this kind of independent learning, reducing the need to communicate all course material during lectures.  Lectures can then be dedicated primarily to reviewing particularly difficult concepts and assessing and challenging student understanding.

* See, for example, Beatty, Transforming student learning with classroom communication systems. Referenced in Additional Resources and available online at http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERB0403.pdf.