Clickers as a gateway to innovation in college instruction

There is now ample evidence that the traditional college course experience is somewhat lacking – and lots of research on alternative techniques that do help improve student learning over traditional lecture. Yet change is slow. In this article, I’ll talk about why clickers can be an important instigator to changing college culture.

My main research area is that of instructional innovation and institutional change in STEM fields – in other words, how and why STEM faculty, departments, and institutions decide to change the way that they teach their students. It’s a sticky problem, one that’s been around for hundreds of years. If you read John Dewey’s writings from the late 1800’s, you will find many messages that are synonymous with today’s calls for reform.

But today we have lots of scholarly work to help guide our reform efforts. If you want to delve into some nice summaries of the literature, check out the 2012 Discipline Based Education Research report or particularly the 2015 report Reaching Students: What Research Says about Effective Instruction in Undergraduate Science and Engineering, both from the National Academy of Science. In a recent meta-analysis, Scott Freeman argued that it could be considered unethical to use traditional lecturing methods – given that active learning decreases failure rates by 55%.

Yet, things are slow to change, in part because professors are not adequately incentivized to focus on their teaching (which detracts from their research programs), and do not receive much help or training in using effective teaching methods when they first start teaching. So, under pressure, we do what we know how to do, which is to teach in the way that we were taught.

We’re learning more about how to effectively promote the use of active learning and other research-based instructional methods. But clickers can be a positive, disruptive technology, and in Denmark they enabled faculty at one college to begin to incorporate more active learning: Getting More Scientists to Revamp Teaching (Journal of College Science Teaching, 2014, by Vincens and Caspersen). Disclaimer: I was quite heavily involved in this article over time, advising the authors as they communicated their arguments.

Typical college faculty aren’t seeking new instructional methods per se – but they are eager to find ways to engage and motivate their students. Vincens and Caspersen aimed (through their Centre for Science Education) to empower science faculty to meet this urgent need of student engagement. Juxtapose this approach – focusing on immediate faculty needs – to the more traditional faculty professional development which aims to directly educate faculty about research-based instructional methods, giving faculty what developers think they need, rather than what faculty are necessarily asking for.

Clickers were their “Trojan horse” for getting faculty to think about principles of effective teaching. Faculty at their institution were enthusiastic about clickers – not necessarily because of the ample research on their influence on student learning, but because of their potential to break up lecture, and engage students. The Centre for Science Education promoted the use of clickers at their university, and supported faculty in their use – giving tips, videos, and papers on their effectiveness. But, they stayed intentionally silent about learning theory and ideas of effective pedagogy, beyond clickers. So, rather than giving intensive workshops and in-depth instruction, they gave faculty just minimal guidance and a few resources for using clickers well. After only 2 years, they found that 45 faculty were using clickers and planned to continue to do so.

And most importantly, as the faculty used clickers, they started to notice student ideas and misconceptions that they hadn’t been aware of. They felt more connected to their students and their difficulties, and started to think about teaching and pedagogy.

This is something we have also noticed in our work at the Science Education Initiative at CU and UBC. I’ve often called clickers a “gateway drug” to active learning – once you open up these conversations with your students, start hearing their ideas in the discussions of the questions, and get out from behind the podium, faculty often find it so delicious that they continue to explore other ways to create student conversations and build on their ideas in class. And clickers are a nice tangible “thing” to incorporate into instruction – faculty can immediately see the value of asking students questions during class, and clickers and peer instruction are easily incorporated into traditional lecture. So, faculty don’t need to commit to huge innovation in teaching, just to trying this one helpful tool. And from there, good things often happen.

So, just like students don’t like being preached to, neither do faculty. Giving faculty access to a tool (i.e., clickers) that is so versatile and naturally leads to student conversation, but does not require large changes to the course, can be a very effective lever to change. The authors say it took a few years to see impacts of the availability of clickers, but it also took very few human resources (i.e., dedicated staff) and now more senior clicker users are mentoring newer recruits. Such senior users are also more interested and eager for further instruction and mini-courses on clicker use.