Complex Clickers in Class

I will be teaching general psychology to a large undergraduate class this Fall.  I had planned on using the “Clicker” to encourage interaction with students (link to company that makes them, wikipedia page that describes them).  They are essentially remote controls that allow the instructor to record votes from students.  For example, I could present a multiple choice question to the class, have them vote with their clicker, and let them immediately see the results.

It appears that there is a debate raging as to how complex and multi-function these devices should be.  I am on the side of ultra-simple, especially if they are used for quizzes or tests.  The arguments for more complex devices seems hollow; tending towards, “they have to carry around another device,” to basically suggesting that users expect more functionality/complexity.

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 e-mail 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.

(post image from the New York Times)

5 thoughts on “Complex Clickers in Class”

  1. It seems as though adding more to the clickers would deter from learning in the classroom. If the idea is that the product will tell a professor what the students know in real time, it should do just that. Students have access to e-mail, im, texting, all on their own. They don’t need yet another product offering them all of the same technology. If it is going to do something to help students more, maybe it can send an e-mail to your student account that says what the question was they answered while in class, what their answer was, and what the correct answer should have been. That would be more of a study help than being able to text a professor or other students.

  2. I have used multiple choice questions in class to show students what the important points are & to force them to think in class about the answers, but I don’t have access to the clicker technology (and want to understand my goal before adding any technology). I’ve been thinking about this actually in the context of a NYTimes mag article this weekend about “building a better teacher” ( One interesting point in this article for me was that what makes teachers better is knowing the mistakes that students make, and I’ve found even without technologies that this is what I use the questions for – so I query the students with wrong answers to understand their logic & try to build the correct understanding. Even if 90% of students give the correct answer, if they don’t know why it’s not that useful. Any technology that helps me get easier access to correct thinking (to model for other students) or errors (so I can probe & help everyone understand the concept better) is helpful to me (and I think helps me teach better so is a benefit to students); technology that distracts me from monitoring student non-verbal cues (side notes to the instructor, for example) are unlikely for me to explore.

    Just a side note, what I’ve started doing that’s helpful without clickers is posting questions after a class that students can get activity points (certain number required) for answering – they have to provide a “why did you answer A, B,C,D”. I can get a quick survey of what students are thinking that’s easily tabulated and can look through answers myself to understand if my points have been made.

  3. A bit off-thread but not off-topic since this is a HCI blog…. I’m sorry, but why is a mobile device used in a _classroom_ unless remote students can call in their votes a la distance learning? Besides the tv game show metaphor to motivate live group participation, I don’t agree that yet another expensive electronic handheld is an appropriate design choice. I don’t want to give away my ideas for alternative form factors that could achieve the same purpose of polling a _physically_ local audience, but come on tech designers- can we think more elegantly and seamlessly or do gadgety toys live up to the hype?

  4. @Quan “come on tech designers- can we think more elegantly and seamlessly or do gadgety toys live up to the hype?”

    It’s nice to have a unified way of polling audience members who otherwise feel it’s too damaging to raise your hand with the wrong answer. It also keeps those students at bay who tend to answer questions with incorrect logic while going on and on in class. If professors know there is an item that’s intended to do one thing, then they don’t worry (or even think about) what other things these devices could be doing (texting a neighbor, playing on facebook, etc.). The point of isolating the gadgety toy to one function gives it a wider audience in terms of professors willing to use them. In many cases instructors don’t want laptops (or other “seemless” devices- which I’ll argue isn’t as easy as it seems with new technology and manufacturers wanting the audience to purchase more thereby designing products that do not update to the latest “capabilities”) in their classrooms because they are dividing attention from the primary purpose of the lecture.

  5. I see both sides of the “raging debate” over simple versus complex classroom response systems. Since arguments for simple systems have been raised above, I thought I would weigh in on the side of complex systems, just to give folks more to think about. Certainly, there are those who argue that having students by dedicated clicker devices is a waste of money, given that most students already carry around a device (cell phone, smart phone) that’s sophisticated enough to allow for classroom response.

    However, there’s also the idea that devices that allow for easier input of student responses to open-ended questions have a great deal of potential. I’m a big fan of multiple-choice questions, and I think that a lot of instructors underestimate the productivity of a well-written, in-class multiple-choice question. (It sounds like Marita gets their value!) However, there are times when instructors might want students to respond to free-response questions during class. Perhaps it’s a recall question where providing answer choices would undermine the point of the question. Perhaps it’s time for students to brainstorm ideas, time to tap into their creativity. Perhaps you just can’t predict what wrong answers students will give to a question, so you’re interested in hearing what students come up with.

    Students using cell phones and smart phones as part of classroom response systems have a much easier time responding to free-response questions during class than do students using simpler, dedicated clicker devices. What’s a bit more of an open question is how instructors can make sense of and leverage student responses to open-ended questions on-the-fly during class. The bar chart that presents the distribution of responses to a multiple-choice question doesn’t work as well for free-response questions!

    Imagine, however, asking students to generate possible causes of some historical event. The students submit their ideas using their smart phones, and a master list of student ideas is projected on the big screen. Then that list is sent back to the students’ smart phones, where the students work in small groups to sort and analyze the list. I’d love to see smart phone apps that allow this kind of interaction.

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