The Rise of Clickers Is Starting to Change How College Professors Run their Classrooms


Last fall, entering students at Columbia Business School received something extra in their orientation packets: a device that resembled a TV remote.

“We told all the incoming students in the fall, ‘Welcome to Columbia Business School, here is your clicker,’ ”
says Chris Bellerjeau, the school’s director of multimedia services. While some students had used one before—at sales conferences or, in one case, as an audience member on America’s Funniest Home Videos—Bellerjeau says the ones who hadn’t were “intrigued.”

Used for years to encourage audience participation at corporate events (not to mention on game shows), these keypad devices are becoming increasingly popular in college classrooms, where they allow students to instantly and anonymously answer questions. Advocates say that, when used properly, clickersr not only allow professors to monitor attendance—the original goal—but to spur classroom discussion that is not dominated by a vocal few.

According to Columbia business student Corey Robins, the clickers have been “very helpful.” By allowing professors to call up pie charts of student opinions and even play interactive games, he says, “it quickly and painlessly gathers and condenses data into a form that the class can easily digest.”

Clickers first appeared in college classrooms as early as 1998, but it’s only in recent years that they’ve really taken off, as the technology has become easier to use and more reliable, says Derek Bruff, assistant director of Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching and author of a book on teaching with clickers. Institutions with at least one class using the devices now include Harvard, Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, University of Colorado at Boulder, Ohio State University, University of California, and Washington State University. In New York, clickers are used at St. John’s University and John Jay College. Ohio-based Turning Technologies, which manufacturers the clickers used at Columbia, says roughly half of its 1 million sales last year were to colleges and universities.

While Columbia gives out clickers for free, at most schools it’s up to students to purchase their own for between $35 and $45 apiece. Some academic publishers are beginning to offer packages in which a clicker can be purchased with a textbook. Tina Rooks, chief instructional officer for Turning Technologies, notes that a single clicker can be used for several classes through all four years of college, and, like a textbook, can be resold once the student no longer needs it.

At Columbia, clickers started as a pilot program in one class in the fall of 2008. When students reported participating and engaging more, says Bellerjeau, the school decided to make clickers part of the standard equipment for all incoming students last fall, and installed receivers (at about $100 apiece) in all 26 classrooms. It’s still up to individual instructors whether to use the clickers; currently, about 10 percent actively use them.

Robins says that some professors don’t use the technology because “instant polling isn’t as valued” in those classes. Some professors use other methods to poll students, such as having students vote via an online class portal before coming to class, he says.

At the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, several psychology classes have begun using clickers at the suggestion of the department chair. Professor Margaret Bull Kovera says she thinks they work best with classes of 150 students or more, like her undergraduate intro course, because they give everyone a chance to interact, something that’s a given in doctoral seminars that have at most 15 students.

Kovera says she spends more time preparing her lectures with clicker-friendly questions and assessments, but that the resulting insights about her students are worth the effort. She says she takes advantage of clickers to ask “questions people might not want to respond with true responses” in front of others, such as those about abortion or personal attractiveness. She displays a graph totaling up all the responses from the class on a projector, giving students an idea of what their classmates are thinking.

The technology’s impact on teaching has been “an evolution over time,” according to Rooks. Initially, she says, professors mostly used clickers to take attendance and automate grading. Without clickers, when instructors ask a question, it’s not clear whether students who don’t raise their hands don’t know the answer, are bored, or just feel intimidated. With each student clicking his or her responses, instructors get all students answering, and can tell who’s struggling right away, instead of waiting till after the exam.

Columbia business student Matan Ariel says that in one class, “the professor would start each class with slides that had questions relating to the reading, and the students would pick the answer they agreed with the most. Then students who had different points of view would be called on to convince others in the class.”

In another class, says Ariel, clickers were used for classroom quizzes to “see how well we were doing in comparison to the other students in the class, but do it in a safe and anonymous way. After each question was answered we could see the percent of students who picked each answer, and then went over the correct one.”

In Kovera’s class, students are awarded a point for answering a question, and another point if they get it right. Several schools recommend teachers not use clickers for just attendance. Students resent the implication that clickers would be used “to track them like Big Brother, and force them to come to class,” according to a “Tips for Clicker Success” pamphlet given to University of Colorado faculty. Instead, it suggests using them to quiz students on tricky concepts to see how well they’ve understood the material, or just giving points to anyone who clicks in, to encourage classroom participation.

So far, results are promising. A 2008 National Science Foundation study conducted at Ohio State found that engineering students who were given the devices to answer multiple-choice questions during physics lectures earned final-exam scores about 10 percent higher—the equivalent of a full letter grade—than students who didn’t.

Columbia staff and faculty have even begun using clickers outside of the classroom, as part of voting procedures in staff meetings. “It’s nice not to visibly have to raise your hand,” Bellerjeau says, wondering if clickers could possibly be used for voting during the tenure process.

He was pleased to see spontaneous clicker use by students during orientation week in the fall. Members of the orientation staff learned how to integrate clickers into their sessions, asking questions like “Where should we go drinking tonight?” or “Who is the cutest?”

While the basic model’s keypad restricts students to only multiple-choice or yes/no answers, more advanced models with keyboards can accept free-form answers for questions that are more subjective and have no real “right” answer, says Rooks. Turning Technologies recently released an application that transforms a student’s iPhone or BlackBerry into a clicker. The app also allows the student to be elsewhere, such as in a distance-learning situation, and the instructor can collect responses from both remote and on-site students at once, says Rooks.

There will always be holdouts among professors, but the general perception is that for a generation of students who grew up with TV remotes in hand, anything that engages students is a win. “If it’s used to enhance discussions, it’s a lot of fun,” says Bruff.

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