Study Finds Classroom-Response 'Clickers' Can ‘Impede Conceptual Understanding’

Study Finds Classroom-Response 'Clickers' Can ‘Impede Conceptual Understanding’

Plenty of peer-reviewed research shows that classroom “clickers” improve student learning when it comes to delivering facts. But a new study found that the devices can actually work against deeper learning of big-picture concepts.

The study, which appears in the latest issue of the peer-reviewed journal “Computers & Education,” states the surprising finding in its long title: “Clickers can promote fact retention but impede conceptual understanding: The effect of the interaction between clicker use and pedagogy on learning.”

Millions of students in colleges and schools around the world take classes that require clickers, small remote controls that let students buzz in answers to multiple choice questions during class. They can make a large classroom seem something like a TV game show, and the idea is that the added interactivity will improve student retention (and keep people’s attention). They’re gadgets that once seemed novel but now feel pretty mainstream—and uncontroversial.

The study’s lead author, Amy M. Shapiro, has nothing against clickers—in fact she has taught with them and has done previous research showing their effectiveness. So she was surprised to discover that in a physics course she studied, students who were given factual questions with clicker systems did more poorly on conceptual questions afterward. (There was one exception: students who had prior knowledge of physics concepts were not thrown off by the clicker quizzes).

In an interview with EdSurge this week, Shapiro, an interim associate dean of graduate studies and research at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, says she now believes that the fact-based clicker questions shifted students’ focus away from bigger-picture concepts, at least for students new to the material. “Getting that factual question got them to hyperfocus on factual knowledge,” she says. “It was almost like implicit statement of, ‘just memorize it.’”

When she showed the finding to the professor teaching the physics course, Grant V. O’Rielly, she says he “he nearly fell over” and immediately changed how he uses the teaching tool.

“Students, like all of us, are looking for the quick way to get the answer,” he says. “If you’re presenting stuff as ‘Just plug numbers into equations,’ then that’s what they’ll do.”

O’Rielly, an associate professor of physics at U Mass Dartmouth, is a longtime clicker enthusiast. He started teaching with the devices about 16 years ago, while he was doing postdoctoral work, because his mentor was an early adopter of the technology. “I enjoyed the clickers, and using them you could really see the student engagement,” he says.

“Attendance is one of the biggest advantages,” says O’Rielly, who says attendance in his courses went from about 60 percent to more than 90 percent after he made answering in-class quizzes with clickers part of the participation grade. “Just for that alone, clickers are useful additions to the classroom,” he argues, “because if the students aren’t there, they aren’t learning anything.” (It’s worth noting that students have been known to game the system by giving their clickers to friends to buzz in for them, however.)

He still believes in clickers, but he says he has changed the way he uses them. Now he has moved away from rote-learning questions and gives only conceptual ones, and he spends longer talking about each one with students. “They don’t work they way people thought they do particularly in concept-heavy courses,” he says of the devices.

For Shapiro, a key lesson is that you can only judge how well a teaching technology works by looking at it in the context of the teaching style and content. “Clickers aren’t used in a vacuum,” she says. That is in line with what scholars like Eric Mazur, a physics professor at Harvard University known for his teaching experiments, have said about focusing on pedagogy rather than technology.

“If it is replicated,” she says of her study, “then people interested in using clickers in their classroom need to be very clear on what their goals are for their students.”

And a lesson for researchers studying clickers is to pay attention to the type and quality of questions used, not just the presence of the technology, says Derek Bruff, director for the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University and author of the book, Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments. "Far too many studies don't even talk about the nature of the clicker questions involved, instead making cruder clicker / no-clicker comparisons," he says. "So this finding might indeed be novel in the literature."

Jeffrey R. Young (@jryoung) is a senior editor at EdSurge. 

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