Eric Mazur teaches physics at Harvard, but he is also famous for having revolutionised the teaching of physics through peer learning. I should add that he is one of the few academics who really has done thorough and exciting empirical research into what works and doesn’t work in HE teaching, especially lectures. His lectures are not really lectures but Socratic exercises, in that they are question-led, diagnostic with episodic discussions and peer resolution. What's interesting is that his primary diagnostic tool is the ‘clicker’.
I have often written about the futility of technology in the classroom, and have long believed that technology is better suited to the individual outside, than inside, the classroom. However, there’s one piece of simple technology that I rather like – the clicker. We are now living in the mobile age and having small, powerful, portable and personal devices for communications is the absolute technological norm for students. The problem of mobiles in education has been their negative use in classrooms, where students text, record unsuitable videos and so on. But here’s a use that is actually useful, backed up by Mazur’s brilliant research. If you want to explore this further watch this video, 'Data is not the plural of anecdote' courtesy of Seb Schmoller – it’s long but it's worth it.
Seven uses and advantages
- Start-up. Before starting it can be used to grab attention, set up a problem to be solved, as a reinforcing assessment on previous work done or as a diagnostic device on the range of abilities within the class before you start.
- Amplifies attention. Attention is a necessary condition for learning and clicker questions demand a response making students stay on task. They pay more attention because they expect questions to be asked, and when asked, they get that lift they need after ten to fifteen minutes of exposition.
- Anonymity. Many students value the anonymity of the responses. They can check out their own knowledge relative to others without embarrassment. It’s a form of self-formative feedback.
- Diagnostic feedback. Teachers/lecturers can use them diagnostically to assess the overall state of knowledge of the class. This, as Dylan William states, needs the use of clever 'hinge’ or diagnostic questions, that really do test understanding, as opposed to recall. This is precisely what Mazur does at Harvard with stunning results in attainment.
- Sparks discussion. Results can be used for further remedial elucidation or to spark small group peer instruction. Again, this is how they are used in Mazur’s peer-instruction sessions.
- Summative assessment. Quick reinforcing, summative assessments can be held at the end of the session.
- Evaluation of session. It would take a brave teacher/lecturer to do this, but why not ask students to evaluate the session at the end. Could lead to improvements next time.
Ipads and Blackberries already have apps that convert them into clickers. The iPad, in particular, is starting to look interesting, with a whole rack of US colleges using them for textbooks, comms, recorded lectures and, interestingly, as clickers. There’s a few free and pro clicker apps out there.
If you’re looking for something that works with more devices try Responseware, a multiple device software that works with iPhones, Blackberries, Windows Mobile devices and laptops.
Proprietary clickers have been around for years, and although more expensive, they work. Northwestern University use proprietary clickers for audience responses and also class attendance. I wouldn't not recommend these, but see the mobile phone as the ultimate solution.
Expect this virtual clicker software to be free from the cloud soon and to work with a full range of mobile devices. It’s one of the few mobile applications in learning that would have a huge and immediate impact in the classroom or lecture hall.