Is better learning a click away?

Clicker technology has advanced, but some professors prefer simpler models that don't lead to distractions.
Clicker technology has advanced, but some professors prefer simpler models that won't lead to distractions.

The students in Michael Dubson’s physics class at the University of Colorado fell silent as a multiple-choice question flashed on a screen, sending them scrambling for small white devices on their desks.

Within seconds, a monitor on Dubson’s desk told him that 92 percent of the class had correctly answered the question on kinetic energy, a sign that they grasped the concept.

Student response systems, or clickers—not unlike gadgets used on television game shows—first appeared in college classrooms over a decade ago and have since spread to just about every college and university in the country, thanks to cheaper and better technology.

But as clickers have become commonplace, a divide has emerged over just how sophisticated they should be.

Some professors, like Dubson, endorse simple, straightforward devices that stick to multiple-choice questions. Others embrace fancier models or newer applications for smart phones and laptops that allow students to query the professor by text or eMail during the lecture or conduct discussion with classmates—without the cost of purchasing a clicker.

Those preferring simplicity say pared-down remotes reduce distractions in a multitasking world, while others say fighting the march to smart phones and digital tablets is a losing battle.

Clickers first gained popularity in large science lecture halls as a way of gauging whether students understood the material. They have since migrated into smaller classrooms and can be found in nursing and other professional schools. Even middle schools and high schools are using them.

Research at the college level has found that students like using the devices and attendance often goes up.

But results are mixed when it comes to learning. Some evidence suggests clicker use has led to only modest gains in retention and test scores, while other studies have detected little or no improvement, according to a November article in the North American Journal of Psychology.

“It’s not magic,” Dubson said. “It can be used very badly or well.”

What works with the clickers, according to Dubson and other professors, are questions that spark discussion and get students to explain concepts to each other. What doesn’t is using them sporadically or for rote memorization. Students also become resentful when they’re used to play attendance cop or spring pop quizzes.

At the University of Colorado, 20,000 of the 30,000 students on campus own clickers. They can be found in music, environmental studies, communications, comparative politics, and law classes.

Dubson sprinkles in clicker questions every five or 10 minutes in his calculus-based introductory physics, a tough required course for physics and engineering majors.

He’s using a concept called peer instruction. Instead of lecturing for 50 minutes and taxing attention spans, questions are projected on a screen, students gather in registered “clicker groups” to discuss them, then students use their clickers to respond.