[Clickers in upper division physics] 3. The critics speak

by Stephanie Chasteen on May 27, 2009

This is part 3 of an ongoing set of posts about using clickers in upper division physics courses, as we’ve been doing at U. Colorado for several years.

Arguments against using clickers in upper division

We’ve heard plenty of arguments about why people don’t want to use clickers in the upper division. Here are a few (with our answers):

  • It chews up time. Yes, it’s true, it does. But these ideas are complex! And if students walk away with the few key ideas from class and really get them, then that’s a valuable use of class time.
  • Students are sophisticated learners at the junior level and don’t need this technological tool to help them learn. Yes, it’s true, they are sophisticated learners, and can go home and read the book if they don’t “get” the lecture. But we’re using clickers as a tool to aid their learning, and because they’re more sophisticated learners, they can get a lot more out of the use of that tool and peer discussion.
  • Discussion is easy in small classes, we don’t need clickers. Some instructors do use other methods, such as colored cards, in small classes. The technology itself may not be as crucial, but the teaching method (of asking a question and encouraging students to discuss it with their neighbors) is still incredibly powerful. Plus, students can still “hide” in a class of 10. Or even a class of five. And so can their misconceptions. Students may think that they are following, but until they have to answer a challenging question, they may not be aware of difficulties that they have.
  • Students may resist the use of clickers. That’s what happened in one class at CU, but the next semester, when clickers were used in that class, students saw the value they added.
  • It’s some extra effort for faculty. Yes, but we do have some question banks available for you at CU if you would like to try it.

Why use clickers?

Besides, clickers work. We have lots of data showing that peer discussion works — see for example the recent paper in Science by Michelle Smith et al. Below are some results from my own work in junior E&M I, when clickers were added to the course. That was only one of a set of changes, however, so it’s hard to tease out whether clickers were a major component, though it was certainly the one that students had the most contact with.

Our end of term surveys also show that students find the use of clickers useful and recommend them in upper division courses. See the powerpoint slides to see all that data.

One interesting piece of that story is that students in quantum mechanics, taught by a popular but traditional lecturer, didn’t want to see clickers added to the course. They said things like:

The class is small enough that if you don’t understand something you can ask the professor to clarify.

I feel that with clicker questions, the class would “feel” more like a lower division course.

The lecture style was extremely useful. NO CLICKERS!

The data reflected their concerns — they didn’t recommend that clickers be used in upper division courses. But the same instructor taught roughly the same course the next semester (different students, but same instructor and same course) with clickers. Those students were enthusiastic about the use of clickers, and strongly recommended using them in upper division courses. So, students may not be able to predict the value of clickers when they haven’t seen them used in an upper division course yet.

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