Clickers in small classes

Michelle Smith, Caleb Trujillo and Tin Tin Su published an article in CBE – Life Sciences Education in 2011 discussing the use of clickers in small (25-student) biology courses. Clickers are in relatively common use in large lecture hall courses at UBC, where I started my teaching career, and at other institutions – but not everyone is convinced of their usefulness in smaller classes.

In the Smith et al. (2011) study, students in an upper-division seminar course in Embryology were given two types of clicker questions: multiple-choice, fact-based quiz questions based on the pre-reading, and questions that asked the students to apply their knowledge following a presentation. The pre-reading quiz questions were done without discussion, and the post-presentation questions were answered individually first, then discussed with peers, then answered again. The researchers then interviewed students to get their reactions. Students commented that the questions motivated them to do the reading, pay attention in class (the questions were distributed throughout the lecture), think through the questions being asked rather than waiting for the most outspoken students to answer, and engage with their peers over the more challenging application questions.

This article was of particular interest to me because I teach small classes and have used clicker-type questions during my lectures, but without any technology – I just post the question and ask students to work out the answer and vote, or sometimes use a think-pair-share model for harder questions. I’ve been considering the use of a clicker-replacement app such as eclicker or Polls Everywhere to make it a little more fun and anonymous to encourage everyone to participate, and this article gives me a little push to act on that next term. It also made me realize that I could administer my pre-reading quizzes using this technology, which would save me some marking time and show me instantly how students did on each question.

Smith, M.K., Trujillo, C., & Siu, T.T. (2011) The benefits of using clickers in small-enrollment seminar-style biology courses. CBE – Life Sciences Education, 10, 14-17.

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