Classroom ‘clickers’ catching on as instant assessment tool

May 2, 2005

College professors teaching lecture hall classes may occasionally look out at the sea of faces and wonder … “Is this stuff sinking in?” A new technology gaining popularity at UW-Madison and nationally helps answer that question before final exams settle the matter for good.

Known as personal response systems, or "clicker" technology, the devices allow instructors to get a quick pulse on what students understand and what topics might need further review. They are also ways to inject some active engagement into the normally passive lecture-hall environment.

Here's how they work: Students purchase, along with textbooks, a "clicker" that's roughly the size of a television remote, usually with a bout a dozen different response buttons. The infrared clicker response is read by a receiver in the classroom. When questions are posed to students, the results are then formatted into digital graphics that are integrated into power-point presentations shared with the classroom.

Jeffrey Henriques, an instructional staff member in psychology, is a believer in the technology. He uses it in his 200-student introductory psychology course, and yields meaningful information on how well students are absorbing classroom material. He likens it to an "instant assessment tool," where he can pose hypothetical questions on a future topic or review last week's concepts.

"There's an anonymity that students like about this technology," he says. "When you ask for a show of hands in a lecture hall, many students won't raise them. This allows everybody to get involved without making yourself conspicuous by committing to the wrong answer."

Henriques admits he was skeptical at first, since the technology is an added cost to students (the system he uses charges $25 per student). But he says he is determined to have students get their money's worth by using it at least once in each class — in a way that will help them review or prepare.

"I like the fact that I can go over material from the previous week," he says. "If a lot of students are getting the answers wrong, I can go back and reinforce those concepts."

Henriques says he receives generally good feedback from students, who get a sense of validation from the results. "Students tell me they like to see what they understand in relation to the rest of the class. If they are struggling, they usually find they are not alone."

While it's unclear how widespread "clicker" usage is at UW-Madison, the technology has been a point of discussion in learning innovation circles. Both the 2004 and 2005 (coming up May 23-25) Teaching and Learning symposia feature presentations on using the technology for assessment and engagement.

Michael Pitterle, a professor of pharmacy, says the School of Pharmacy purchased the receiver and student response units for all students in the school. Since a number of faculty use the system, Pitterle says the purchase provides universal access.

Pitterle says he uses the technology most frequently for case studies, in which students will complete a complex patient scenario and then review the results of how their responses match with the proper patient treatment.

"I have two case studies that build in 15 or 20 questions for each one," says Pitterle. "We allot an entire lecture to walk through the case study and the results. They get to see what their classmates are thinking."

Jay Martin, a professor of mechanical engineering, was introduced to the technology through a National Science Foundation coalition. He and engineering colleague John Mitchell have been developing a methodology they call "assessment centered instruction," which relies heavily on clicker usage.

"We ask multiple choice style questions that have all sorts of different purposes," Martin says. "Some questions probe specific concepts, other probe definitions, others probe specific skills, and some even address student understanding of how things work."

Martin says the technology doesn't have universal support with students, but more students appreciate it than reject it. "Clickers can be used to facilitate a 'natural' active and cooperative classroom," he says.

"I want the classroom to be a place where students are actively engaged in learning and assessing their understanding," Martin adds. "The technology assists with this in a big way."