Informal Assessment Series #1 - Clickers

One relatively new tool for informal assessment, specifically designed for use in lecture courses, is the classroom response system - informally known as "clicker technology." Clicker devices, often bundled with textbooks, look a bit like remote controls and offer instant feedback about student understanding.

Working with a software package specifically designed for clicker use, instructors write multiple-choice questions to use during their lectures to informally (and anonymously) assess whether or not students are grasping the material.

Students use clickers in a lectureIn a recent TIP workshop on informal assessment, Jay Martin, professor of Mechanical Engineering, and Colleen Atakpu-Abraham, a graduate student in Industrial & Systems Engineering, noted that clicker questions are often useful for figuring out whether or not the students understand a specific concept or have a misconception that they need to overcome.

When they do so, instructors are conducting formative assessment - diagnostic assessment to aid student learning - and students are checking their own understanding.

"Clickers make it easy for instructors to help students understand where they are with the material, rather than just exams or projects - summative assessments - that determine grades," explains Atakpu-Abraham. "Lots of low-stakes formative assessments will give students a better understanding of course material, so they can achieve better grades."

Trina McMahon, a Civil and Environmental Engineering professor, has successfully used clickers for the past five semesters in her large lecture courses.

"What I like about clickers is that there's instant feedback... As soon as I run a question, I can see a histogram of responses. [The students] know right away if they got a question right, or if they got it wrong and should pay more attention. And I know that if everyone gets it right that I can move on, but if half the class gets it wrong and looks confused, I should spend more time on the topic. It's like just-in-time teaching," explains McMahon.

McMahon acknowledges that not all students enjoy working with clickers - many students worry about the additional cost while others "are more reflective learners... they sometimes get frustrated by having to respond to a question right away."

Still, though, she believes that the benefits are wide-ranging. For example, McMahon often creates clicker questions that will lead students to encounter common mistakes in class. Then, she can explain the pitfalls right away - thus helping the students prepare for their problem sets.

"More and more I think that it's really essential to address misconceptions that come up right away during class... and clickers help me to do that better," she says.

The results of studies conducted in clicker classrooms seem to agree with McMahon's assessment. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (reported here by the ALA), chemistry students in a section that used clickers achieved higher test scores than an identical section that did not. Similarly, at the University of Colorado-Boulder, physics professors found "significant improvements in both content knowledge and beliefs" (McKagan, Perkins, & Wieman; abstract) after implementing a variety of classroom reforms including clickers. (Click here to read the paper.)


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For more information about the ideas in this article:

1) Vanderbilt Center for Teaching Research, Classroom Response System Bibliography

A list of research articles, both general and discipline-specific, about clickers, their use in classrooms, and their impact on teaching and student learning. Many of the cited sources can be found online or in the UW-Madison Library catalog.

2) McKagan, S.B., Perkins, K.K. & Wieman, C.E. (2006). Reforming a large lecture modern physics course for engineering majors using a PER-based design. Proceedings of the Physics Education Research Conference 2006. (Paper can be downloaded here.)

The authors of this paper, after realizing that a large physics lecture course for engineering majors was not well-suited to engineers (because it focused on mathematical solution and abstract equations without connecting them to application), completely reframed their course content and methods of teaching. We include this piece here primarily because one of their chosen revisions was the introduction of clickers, but it is also an interesting study of incorporation of active learning techniques and real-world application more generally.