Clickers on campus

More college professors are using clickers to monitor attendance, quiz students and get feedback from students, reports the New York Times.

If any of the 70 undergraduates in Prof. Bill White’s “Organizational Behavior” course here at Northwestern University are late for class, or not paying attention, he will know without having to scan the lecture hall.

Every student in Mr. White’s class has been assigned a palm-size, wireless device that looks like a TV remote but has a far less entertaining purpose. With their clickers in hand, the students in Mr. White’s class automatically clock in as “present” as they walk into class.

They then use the numbered buttons on the devices to answer multiple-choice quizzes that count for nearly 20 percent of their grade, and that always begin precisely one minute into class. Later, with a click, they can signal to their teacher without raising a hand that they are confused by the day’s lesson.

Studies at Harvard and Ohio State suggest that the use of clickers increases students’ understanding, the Times reports.

The clickers are also gaining wide use in middle and high schools, as well as at corporate gatherings. Whatever the setting, audience responses are received on a computer at the front of the room and instantly translated into colorful bar graphs displayed on a giant monitor.

Turning Technologies, which sells clickers to Northwestern, expects to ship over one million clickers this year. About half will go to colleges and universities.

Bye-bye blackboards

While “individualized, self-directed online learning is all the rage,” schools are rushing to buy interactive whiteboards put “the teacher front and center” with an updated chalkboard, writes Mike Petrilli in Education Next’s blog.

These contraptions, which go by brand names like SMART Boards and Promethean ActivBoards and cost about $5,000 a pop, are giant computerized screens that crackle with video, audio, and Internet connectivity. When hooked up to a computer, they enable teachers to present multimedia lessons meant to catch the eyes (and brains) of a generation addicted to Wii, iPhones, and IMing. They also serve as an old-fashioned blackboard (teachers and students write on them with special markers) but with a twist: whatever is scribbled on the board can be captured, digitized, and saved for later. This is particularly helpful for students who miss class and can in effect replay the lesson at their leisure. It also allows teachers to “rewind” and explain a point made 15 minutes or 15 days earlier.

Critics complain the whiteboards are expensive ways to support “stand-and-deliver instruction” instead of student discovery and collaboration.

If there’s common ground between “individualized learning” gurus and whiteboard fans, it might come in the form of “learner response systems.” These clickers allow all students in the class to answer a teacher’s question at once. Their responses can be instantly aggregated and displayed on the whiteboard; teachers can look at their computer screens and know right away which of their students gave the wrong answer. It’s “formative assessment” taken to the extreme, and allows a teacher to know which students need more explanation, and when the class is ready to move on.

With school budgets shrinking, the day of the interactive whiteboard may be waning, Petrilli writes. These technologies will survive only “if they allow teachers to be just as effective with a class of 30 students as a class of 20” by increasing engagement.

I can hear teachers saying: You mean a class of 42 instead of a class of 34. I’m curious: Are interactive whiteboards worth the cost? If it’s a choice between whiteboards and slightly smaller classes, a longer school day, more books, more field trips  or the idea of your choice, what would deliver the most brains for the buck?

What's with those clickers in physics class?

I am honored to be guest-blogging for Joanne Jacobs while she is away on vacation. I thought I’d warm up with the good old topic of physics instruction.

Last year M.I.T. abandoned its introductory physics lectures and turned to a workshop approach with “personal response clickers.” The teacher would give a short presentation and throw out multiple-choice questions, which the students would answer with their clickers. They would then work on problems during class, as the teacher circulated to help them.

The NYT article heralded this change, mentioning only in passing that some students had petitioned against it. The article quoted only those professors who thought it was a great idea.

But even the project’s pioneer, Professor Eric Mazur, apparently admits that this is largely for unmotivated students.

“The people who wanted to understand,” Professor Mazur said, “had the discipline, the urge, to sit down afterwards and say, ‘Let me figure this out.’ ” But for the majority, he said, a different approach is needed.

If you look at the comments to the article, you find multiple claims that this has resulted in—surprise!—dumbing down of physics.
One M.I.T. student responds:

Don’t be fooled by the professors’ and administration’s rave reviews. The professors love it because they don’t need to prepare a solid 50-minute lecture (and therefore they can devote more time to their research), the administration loves it because they can advertise it in their recruiting letters; the people who get left in the lurch are the students, who would much rather go back to the old way of doing things (this aspect, of course, the article glosses over while gushing forth about this supposedly “new” manner of teaching).

Another M.I.T. student comments:

The atmosphere of the classroom makes it much harder to focus than that of a traditional lecture hall. While lauding the shiny new style of the “round table with computers” system, the article fails to mention that since the professor cannot help but be in only 1 point at any time, 50% of the students are constantly twisted in their seats, trying to operate computers, take notes, and punching clickers while maintaining attention on the instructor.

And another: “My opinion is that this new and expensive teaching method will tend to slow down the more gifted.”

I am currently auditing a physics class (not at M.I.T.). I thought it would be a lecture course, and I relished the thought. As it turns out, this course uses clickers, group work, and all. The professor–who is excellent–gives brief presentations and then throws out problems for students to answer in groups. They then choose one of the four options with their clickers.

Now, I have not taken physics since high school, so I am a bit rusty, certainly not among the more gifted. That said, I like getting absorbed in a lecture, and I like pondering problems on my own. I don’t understand this push to fill classes with group buzz, not to mention multiple-choice problems and clickers. I am enjoying the course–I just wish there were more lecture!

More and more colleges and universities are adopting this workshop/clicker approach and abandoning what they have done before. Yet the more advanced courses, the ones specifically for physics majors, use a lecture approach. Why? Is it that they expect physics majors to work independently and persevere with difficult problems?

Current and former physics students, physics professors, science teachers, and others, what do you think? Do you like this “new” approach to physics instruction? Do you find that it enhances or limits learning? And what do you think of those clickers?

Update (sort of): See Kitchen Table Math for a thoughtful, skeptical take on this matter.

Diana Senechal

Correction: I mistakenly gave the name of the Harvard professor as Kurt Mazur. The name is Eric Mazur.

Fad or not? Click on your answer

Clickers that let students answer questions in class are proving popular in K-12 classrooms. Is it a gimmick? The Boston Globe visited an eighth-grade class in Lexington, Mass. where students clicked their answers to a question asking if President Polk was justified in asking Congress to declare war on Mexico.

Eight students tapped A: “Yes, it was time for war. Congress was justified.” Seven picked B: “No, it was an excuse to push America into war for more land.” And, four chose C: “Wait! I don’t get this yet.”
In an instant, the teacher, Edward Davey, discovered that he needed to teach more on the topic, the students received a snapshot of one another’s views, and a lively debate ensued about the 19th century conflict.
Teachers like the quick feedback and the chance to involve students who are reluctant to speak up in class.

. . . But although teachers and students rave about the excitement the clickers bring to the classroom, some educators and researchers say schools should proceed with caution. They warn that the remotes, which send students’ answers to a teacher’s computer via radio frequency or infrared signals, risk becoming gimmicks if used for simplistic quizzes and games.

Teachers say it takes time to develop the right questions to work with clickers, though some rely on readymade questions that come with the clickers.

A set of 32 clickers costs $895 to $3,000. I’ll bet that cost could come down.

Core Knowledge wants to see lessons on YouTube.  There’s got to be some teachers out there with great ways to teach fractions. Why not share the smarts?