Student response systems (“clickers”) are popular in the classroom, and we know that kids enjoy using them. But do they really enhance learning?
Clickers enable electronic voting, described as a “game-based” approach for gathering student feedback. Kids can weigh in anonymously, and teachers benefit by hearing from the entire class. In this way, student response systems serve as a form of assessment that can help in planning instruction. In addition, students using clickers are actively participating (rather than just sitting and passively listening), which we know leads to better engagement and learning. One more advantage of student response systems is elimination of common pitfalls of typical class discussion—a few students dominate the conversation, or shy and lower-achieving students are hesitant to join in.
For educators considering the use of clickers, the question becomes: Do we really need the tech gizmo to spur students’ active engagement, or can the same results be achieved with the low-tech strategy of a well-facilitated class discussion?
An Educause Quarterly study sought to determine just that. Martyn (2007) compared sections of an undergraduate introductory computer information systems class—two sections used clickers (via Turning Point Technologies software), and two sections used discussion.
The students’ scores on the course’s final exam indicated that clickers did not enhance learning, at least not as measured by the exam. Students who had used discussion scored similarly to those who had used clickers. Compared to the discussion group, the clicker group did report (albeit not in the form of a statistically significant difference) that the technology enhanced their classroom experience in terms of understanding of the topic, feelings of belonging in the class, and level of interaction with both classmates and the instructor. Students also recommended that the class use clickers again.
While this study did not provide definitive evidence for the impact of clickers on content knowledge, one could argue that there are 21st-century skills—not measurable by a traditional final exam—that might to be gained from using the technology. See, however, the Education World blog post Teachers Debate Social Media Use in Class for important cautions against using a tech tool just because students enjoy it. Although occasionally breaking up the classroom routine is a good thing, there should be a legitimate pedagogical reason for incorporating technology. The test is whether it enables a type and depth of learning not otherwise possible.
Research demonstrating the effectiveness of a tech tool in the classroom tends to lag well behind the emergence of that tool. For that reason, adoption of a new technology should be treated as an experiment—quite literally, teachers can even begin to collect their own data to demonstrate the impact of a given technology.
Since courses must be redesigned to incorporate the use of student response systems, this investment of teacher time should not be undertaken lightly. In addition, educators should collaborate and share lesson planning resources so that they don’t waste time “re-inventing the wheel.”
Additional best practices for using student response systems include: