‘Classroom Clickers’ Migrate from Lecture Halls to K-12 Schools

Published October 14, 2010

Math students at New Mexico’s Belen High School better pay close attention in class this fall. If they don’t, teachers will know.
Belen, which serves a town by the same name about 40 miles south of Albuquerque, is one of a growing number of K-12 schools nationwide that have adopted “classroom clickers”—the trendy name for calculator-sized “personal response devices” that let teachers instantly and electronically quiz their students on lecture topics.

The instructor uses a laptop to tabulate the responses instantly. The system lets the instructor know who hasn’t answered and who has given wrong answers.
The result is a rolling series of high-tech pop quizzes keeping students on their toes and teachers abreast of how well their classes are learning.
“Everyone really has to participate,” said Ryan Temble, math department chairman at Belen High. “Because you always have the one kid in front who answers everything. The other kids get used to that and they don’t answer.”
‘Too Early to Tell’
The clickers cost between $35 and $45 apiece and have been in college classrooms for the better part of a decade. The K-12 market is now growing; “i>clicker,” a subsidiary of textbook publishing giant Macmillan, started marketing the devices to schools this year after years of sales to universities and corporations.
“It’s too early to tell,” whether the devices aid student achievement in K-12 schools, said Sarah Martin, i>clicker’s director of sales and marketing. “Higher education is better documented than K-12.”
“I think it will probably take a couple of years to determine how this is impacting our students,” said Katrina Uhl, a technology specialist at Floyd Central High School in Indiana. “They like it. But as far as what it’s actually doing, I think we’re going to need a couple of years to come up with those answers.”

Some university professors swear by the devices. Douglas Duncan, an astronomy professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder, said studies show more students master academic concepts when they debate them in class than by listening to a lecture. Clickers facilitate that interaction, he said.
“It is not the clicker technology, it is the discussion. Clicker just makes it easier to do,” Duncan said. “It has taken 15 researchers 10 years to do this, and now we get the same results year after year. We can prove the C students of 10 years ago are now B students, B students have become A students, and our A students are comparable to incoming graduate students.”
Improved Attendance Seen
Neil Sheflin, an economics professor at Rutgers University, includes clicker responses in his grading system. Students get one point merely for clicking a response to Sheflin’s questions. They get another four points for getting the right answer. Clickers, he said, have created more back-and-forth dialogue in his classes—and improved attendance.
“One engages and motivates students, because they’re not just passively listening to the instructor talk,” Sheflin said. “It forces the instructor to change teaching methods … to a pseudo-Socratic dialogue based on questioning.”
Samuel Hodge Jr., who teaches law and anatomy at Temple University, agrees.
“The clickers provide the students with a way to have their opinions be heard and counted,” Hodge said. “It also gives them an incentive to read the assigned materials since they know they will be quizzed on the materials in the next class by use of the clickers.”
Participation Required, Anonymous
Whether such results occur at the K-12 level is yet to be seen. Teachers in classes using the devices say they’re seeing higher levels of student engagement and the instant polling lets them see which students need more time with a particular concept.
“It requires all the students to participate in the class. The teacher’s not going to move on until all the students answer the question,” said Floyd High School’s Uhl. “It allows students to participate without fear of ridicule, because it’s all anonymous.”
Temble agrees. “I think if you get somebody who is real shy in class—and maybe doesn’t even ask questions—they now have a voice,” he said. “They don’t have to speak out, but you can see how they’re doing.”

‘Money Well Spent’
There is a question of cost. College students buy their own clickers. Public schools, however, are furnishing the devices. Officials say at at time when they have to balance exploding IT budgets against tight fiscal resources, the clickers are a relatively low-cost, high-yield technology.
“When you have a tighter budget, you’re forced to look at what tools really work in the classroom,” said i>clicker’s Martin, “rather than just fancy technology and pieces of equipment that aren’t going to impact student learning.”
“Frankly, given the cost of everything else, it’s money well spent and fairly inexpensive,” Rutgers’ Sheflin said.
Educators say it’s important to use technology such as clickers in the classroom, as students are immersed in cellphones, laptops, and other multimedia devices in every other area of life. A battery-operated device can help capture the short attention spans of the young technophiles.
“Today’s students are different from students we had 10 or 20 years ago,” Uhl says. “They’re much more active where learning is concerned.”

Joel Mathis ([email protected]) writes from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This article originally appeared in The Heartland Institute publication School Reform News.