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Effective Clicker Questions Promote Active Learning in Large Classes

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Achieving student interaction and providing opportunities for practice with feedback can be challenging in a large class. Some professors use clickers to keep students actively engaged. Clickers, or student response systems, are hand-held mobile devices that allow students to respond to multiple choice questions included in the instructor’s PowerPoint slides. Students reply by pressing a button on their clickers that corresponds to one of the answer options displayed on the slide. A bar graph showing a tally of the responses can then be displayed on the slide for the entire class to see.

Biology professor Zuzana Swigonova uses clickers to teach BIOSC 0805, The Human Body, a class that normally enrolls 100 to 120 students, and BIOSC 0150: Foundations of Biology I, a class of about 250 students. What she likes about clickers is that they “give [her] an opportunity to target different objectives.” She describes the five basic categories of questions she uses:

    • Reading questions test students’ understanding of the pre-lecture assigned readings. Their answers to these questions provide Swigonova with information about how much time she will need to spend on clarifying concepts from the readings.
    • Questions that connect old material to new material are used to help students recall what they already know and prime them for the new learning.
    • Questions that test understanding of new material assess students’ understanding as Swigonova progresses through her lecture covering new content. Depending on the responses, she either moves on or spends a little more time clarifying the challenging topic. She always has additional material ready if she needs it.
    • Application questions are those where a concept she just explained appears in an applied situation. An example of such a question would be: “When do humans perform fermentation?”
    • Attitude questions are sometimes posed on topics such as ethics that require divergent thinking.

Swigonova believes that the use of clickers helps in at least two ways: First, by encouraging students to prepare for the lectures and work with the material in each lecture, the activities make them better prepared for the exams. Second, the student responses help her to understand their misconceptions so that she “can address in real time the problems they are having.”

Because each student has their own clicker, Swigonova is able to keep a record of each student’s answers over time. Her philosophy is to “support competition and reward active learning.” To that end, students receive points for each right answer. She averages about 150 clicker questions per semester which contribute approximately 7-8% to students’ final grades. She has found that students’ scores on the clicker questions are similar to what they earn on the exams, and one of the important messages she wants to convey to students is that their preparation for and performance on the clicker questions will help them on the exams. As she says, “This is a real-time experience with the skills they need, with imposed time limits to answer the kinds of multiple choice questions they will see on the exams.”

Though she strives to promote interaction, Swigonova acknowledges that some students find it difficult to speak up in front of class. She thinks that the use of clickers allows everyone to contribute without the stress of having to be in the spotlight. To further enable active learning, Swigonova makes use of peer instruction by encouraging students to consult with their neighbors when answering questions.

Clickers can be used effectively to promote interaction, assess comprehension, address misconceptions, and prepare students for exams, and it is important to identify your goals for using them and plan your questions accordingly. For more information, you may wish to consult some of the resources on clickers published by EDUCAUSE:


DECEMBER 2012

Contents:

Effective Clicker Questions Promote Active Learning in Large Classes

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