Using clickers in small classes

by Stephanie Chasteen on March 14, 2015

As more instructors are trying clickers and peer instruction in their courses, I get more questions about how to use them in small classes. I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned through talking with faculty who teach courses of various sizes.

The first question I ask is, “what do you mean by small?” For me, anything smaller than 30 students is relatively small. Beyond that, you’ve got a large enough sea of students that I don’t think there will be meaningful differences in how you facilitate clickers. (That said, when you get into the 200+ sized courses, there are some differences in how you might manage clickers).

Is peer instruction useful in small classes?

Definitely. Class size doesn’t affect the usefulness of considering, and discussing, a pointed question on the material. It’s easy to get lost – and easy to hide that confusion – even in a small class. What I usually hear from instructors is that they already have a lot of interactivity in a small class and they aren’t sure what clickers would add. However, the instant feedback you get during clicker questions is very helpful to both instructors and to students. Also, in a small class it’s harder to remain anonymous during questions where students are asked to raise their hands; more anonymity can help reduce the barrier to participating even in a small class. In a course that I’ve observed with ~20 students, I saw students engage quite enthusiastically in the clicker questions. Without the questions, there just would have been less opportunity for students to talk through some of these complex ideas, and the instructor would have been more in the dark about what was difficult for students. I know of at least two studies supporting the use of clickers in small courses, from biology and chemistry.

How can clicker questions be helpful?

Lots of ways – and these don’t really relate to the size of the class. Clicker questions can help keep everyone on the same page, highlight the kinds of questions the instructor wants students to consider, and provide a helpful structure for encouraging students to discuss the core ideas. A study by Michelle Smith and colleagues particularly on small-enrollment seminar courses in biology found that clickers:

  1. Increased the chance students did the required reading
  2. Helped the instructor engage all students
  3. Gave students a focused opportunity to share their thinking and to learn from their peers

Another study by Wimpfheimer in Chemistry found the following additional benefits:

  1. The class became more active and vibrant
  2. Students became less passive
  3. Absenteeism was reduced
  4. Students seemed to like the addition of clickers (we have also found this in our own work at CU)
  5. More students were able to share their ideas with the whole class, promoting an emphasis on explaining and listening to reasoning. Students were also better able to hear their classmates.

Are the clickers really needed?

I think the clickers can be really helpful even in a small class, for a few reasons. It allows for anonymity of student answers, creates accountability since each answer is recorded, and gives you a helpful record of how students responded so you can make changes for next year. That said, of course, you can still use peer instruction without the clicker – it’s a pedagogy, not tied to a particular technology. If students don’t already have clickers from other classes, and you think they’ll balk at buying them for the class – you can always use the colored cards method.

Any special considerations?

An intimate seminar course is definitely a different type of environment than a large course. Students are more aware of each other, and of the instructor’s actions. The instructor is better able to visit student groups to hear conversations. Plus, many seminar courses are populated by upper-division students who are more motivated to engage in the material and are more adept at learning. So, I feel it’s important to have clickers feel like a natural, authentic outgrowth of the classroom environment and the instructor’s approach – rather than something “tacked on” to get students to engage. The choice of questions can be really critical – for all size classes – to frame for students what the instructor expects students to do. A question that is closely tied to the lecture or class discussion is more likely to feel like a natural “next step” rather than an awkward transition.

Certainly, anonymity is a bit compromised in a smaller class: Students are better able to hear the conversations of other students in the room in a small class, and it’s easier to identify the 1 or 2 students who didn’t vote with the rest of the class. And so students may feel awkward if they vote incorrectly, or students might vote with the best students. In the chemistry study cited above, the instructor found that these issues were self-correcting as students realized that everyone gets the questions wrong sometimes.

I would be interested to hear others’ thoughts or ideas about how small classes differ from large!

This is a repost from my article on the clicker blog.

{ 1 comment }

MONTESSORIAN March 23, 2015 at 9:30 pm


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