Clickers: formative feedback key to better learning
Earlier, we saw how Victorian slates were used as whole class feedback devices, when students were asked to complete a writing task and hold the slates up in the air for perusal by the teacher. Clickers perform the same function electronically. It is a profoundly learner-centric piece of technology, which also happens to be an effective device for shaping teaching. They can be used for polling, whole class assessment, individual assessment, answering multiple choice questions, short answers, peer assessment even mood measurement.
Schools suffer from one major drawback, class size. Teaching is largely a one-to-many activity and it is difficult for even experienced teachers to know what is going on in the minds of so many students. Black & William claims that this feedback failure is a major problem in poor teaching. He recommends ‘hinge’ questions that allow teachers to assess whether what they’ve taught has hit home.
Clickers allow the teacher to poll students or ask key questions to get anonymous or identifiable feedback. This feedback is important as it allows the teacher to identify whether actual understanding is taking place, before moving on. Failure can be a destructive force in learning wen learners are exposed to embarrassment even ridicule.
From the learners’ perspective, this type of interaction is challenging and forces them; first, to raise attention; second, to reflect on the topic; third, assess themselves; fourth, see how the class as a whole is doing; fifth, get some help. Anonymity can be a virtue here.
Mazur – peer instruction
Eric Mazur, who teaches physics at Harvard has been using clickers to improve his teaching for many years. Rather than deliver long lectures, without interruption, he stops at key points and asks diagnostic questions. These questions tend to be natural language questions that really test the underlying principles of physics, rather than the application of formulas. If the histogram shows that many of the class have not understood the point, he arranges them into groups so that peer-to-peer learning can take place, asks the question again, then moves on. The data he’s gathered suggests that this approach has led to significant increases in attainment and many universities have since adopted this approach. Note that it is the feedback process that is important. Mazur claims that coloured cards work just as well.
Mobile devices as clickers
Web-based response systems link teacher and students across the web and allow them all to set questions and see the results. Several systems now exist for using student mobile devices. These can be used to poll or answer like other clickers but SMS messages can also be sent giving another more detailed level of feedback. Forums can also be added that allow peer-to-peer comments and answers to questions. With the increasing availability of wi-fi, browser-based solutions are easy to access and use. These systems are obviously far superior to Bluetooth, infrared or radio frequency systems.
A dedicated hashtag (#)allows students to answer/comment, as people often do now in conference sessions or on courses. This can be used with closed systems such as Yammer.
This simple piece of technology is one of the few technologies that were designed to inject interactivity into the classroom, a one-to-many teaching environment. Its usefulness, proved by the likes of Eric Mazur, has meant further development across a range of technologies. Profoundly learner-centric, it provides a feedback loop that allows the teacher/lecturer to dynamically assess the effect of their teaching. Given the low cost, ease of use and pedagogic power of this simple piece of technology, it is a wonder that so much money has been spent on whiteboard technology, when audience response technology is available?