Clickers open conversations in classrooms

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

To outsiders, some classrooms at Brown might be confused with live tapings of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” as six professors this semester have opted to “ask the audience” using digital Personal Response System clickers.

Though by no means a lifeline, clickers allow professors to poll their students on anything from their predictions of an experiment to their personal backgrounds.

Through PRS, professors pose a multiple-choice question on an overhead to which students use their individual clickers to respond. A bar graph then emerges within seconds to display the overall results of the poll.

Currently about 260 students use PRS in their courses. Though the system was first adopted by physics professors to gauge their students’ level of understanding, professors from a wide range of departments including ethnic studies, biology, environmental science and public policy are now finding clickers helpful in generating feedback, understanding the collective views of the class and finding out student demographics.

The anonymity of PRS is integral to its functions in the classroom environment, as it “allows students a way to express viewpoints that they might not want to express out loud,” said Associate Professor of Political Science Ross Cheit, who has used clickers in PS 10: “Introduction to Public Policy” and PS 105: “Ethics and Public Policy.” Consequently, class conversations often become more dynamic as surprising results of the poll “give students legitimacy to express certain viewpoints,” Cheit said.

Associate Professor of Amer-ican Civilization Matthew Garcia linked the use of clickers in his classrooms to President Ruth Simmons’ push for intellectual diversity on campus, saying they “liberate people who think they might be part of a minority.”

Many students like the clickers. “In liberal arts classes, (using a clicker) makes it easier to answer a question posed by a professor honestly,” said Liliana Ornelas ’07.

In addition to helping create a more intellectually safe and diverse environment for students, clickers have helped physics professors Richard Gaitskell and Jay Tang with “just-in-time teaching” – they can better tailor their lectures to the conceptual needs of their students because of the instant feedback.

Despite the positive effects of clickers on teaching and the classroom environment, many students and professors lament the technological difficulties of PRS. Professors have found the software of the system hard to hook up correctly and the logistics of setting it up time consuming.

Computing and Information Services Instructional Techno-logist Siobhan Ross said she is addressing the technological problems surrounding PRS and expects the logistics of the system to improve because the current company that owns it, InterWrite, was recently bought by a larger company.

PRS cost the University about $4,000 to $5,000. Currently students in courses requiring clickers borrow them from the Sciences Library and return them at the end of the semester, free of charge. At some other schools, students buy their clickers as they would buy a textbook, but Brown wants to continue its practice of keeping students free of the financial burden associated with PRS, Ross said.

The use of clickers is part of a growing effort by the University to bring technology into classrooms to create a more interactive learning environment. As part of this effort, some professors have also started to use SchoolPad, a portable notepad that allows professors and students to project the work they do in class on an overhead screen that the entire class can see.

Clickers will most likely continue to have a growing presence on campus – more clickers have been ordered for next year.