Clickers in the science classroom

We are applying for a grant to upgrade the technology in our science department, and we’re thinking of buying “clickers.” Do you have any advice?
—Iris, Salem, Oregon

Clickers (personal response devices) look like calculators Students use keypads to respond to a question, often multiple-choice, and the results are tabulated and displayed—similar to popular television game shows that survey the audience and reveal the percentage choosing each response.
Clickers have become quite popular in classrooms at all levels. Unlike a show of hands or holding up index cards, students’ individual responses are not publicly displayed, although they can be recorded on the teacher’s computer. The teacher gets immediate results during the lesson and can modify the learning activities to correct misunderstandings, provide more in-depth examples or explanations, or move on to the next activity.
In a high school class I visited, the teacher was conducting a lesson in which students were solving chemistry problems. The teacher used a variety of instructional techniques, including a graphic organizer and guided practice at the interactive board. When the students indicated they understood the concept, the teacher displayed several problems on the board. The students did the calculations and entered their answers via the clickers. The teacher displayed a graph showing the percentage of students who entered the correct answer. Everyone had the first two answers correct, but several students missed the third one. He used the clicker software to display the number of students who chose each response and noted that one of the incorrect answers had been chosen by quite a few students. He then asked the class to figure out why that answer, although incorrect, was popular. After some thought, one student volunteered, “Maybe they thought Ca stood for carbon and they used the wrong atomic mass.” “That’s what I did,” another student remarked, and so the class experienced not just getting an answer correct, but figuring out the thought processes involved. The teacher knew he could move on to more complicated formulas, and the students were ready for the challenge.

In this class, the clicker system and its software was a component of the interactive board. The clickers were in a storage case, and as the students came into the lab, they retrieved the clicker assigned to them by number. The teacher had a record of responses, and although he did not “grade” these lesson checkups (formative assessments), he could monitor the progress of individual students from one lesson to the next
A middle school math colleague used clicker data to determine which students needed additional help. He worked with those students—re-teaching or providing more guided practice while the others worked on more challenging topics. He certainly could have used a paper-and-pencil quiz, but the immediate feedback gave him more time for the alternative instruction rather spending it checking more than 100 quizzes.  He also used clickers for pre- and post-tests to show the students their progress.
Many college classes use clickers (see the two references at the end), and I’ve used clickers with third-graders who caught on very quickly. I’ve also used them to gather feedback during professional development workshops and at parent meetings to compile their opinions in an attitude survey.
In one project I was involved with, the classrooms did not have interactive boards. The system was portable, with a remote receiver connected to a laptop. A projector displayed the questions. It was a lot of equipment to set up, but we could use it in different venues.
There are many systems to choose from, ranging from simple numeric keypads to more complicated options for entering data. Ask your technology coordinator for input on what system would meet your instructional needs and your school’s technology capabilities. Other questions to consider: Is the system compatible with the test generator/test bank you have? How easy is it to import or copy/paste questions? Can graphics be included in the questions? What kind of analyses does the software perform beyond calculating the percent correct—simple statistics (mean, standard deviation, median), graphs, or an item analysis? Can you export the data into Excel or other statistical programs? Does it produce reports for individual students as well as class summaries? When you’ve narrowed your choices, ask other teachers about their experiences, including teachers in the NSTA Communities (you’ll get a lot of information from your online colleagues).
Regardless of what system you ultimately decide on, it does take class time to administer the questions. You’ll have to adapt or create questions related to the concepts and skills being learned. The systems lend themselves to multiple-choice format (including true/false questions) and would not be useful for open-ended questions or more creative solutions, although I’ve seen ways to capture text messages from cell phones or other devices that sound intriguing.
The clickers by themselves are not a solution to improving student learning. Much depends on the quality of questions that are presented and what the teacher and students do with the results. The clickers can be an expensive, high-tech “quiz machine” or they can be an integral part of a teacher’s strategies to improve participation, determine students’ misconceptions and misunderstandings, and adjust instruction to help all students learn.
Clickers in the Large Classroom: Current Research and Best-Practice Tips
Building Acceptance for Pedagogical Reform Through Wide-Scale Implementation of Clickers

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7 Responses to Clickers in the science classroom

  1. James says:

    We use clickers in a large college freshman biology lecture. In a class of 400, they provide some helpful immediate feedback to the instructor, but really just function as a quick way to document which students are present at each lecture.
    We use the iclicker system:

  2. Mary Williams says:

    We have been using clickers for about 7 yrs now, and I think they are wonderful! Students love them and it provides me, as well as the students with immediate feedback. I use them for review, but more importantly in my content presentation. They are especially helpful in making sure students understand how to work problems (in chemistry or physics). I have been teaching for 25+yrs, and this is one of the best innovations in education.

  3. Bonnie Sorenson says:

    This is more of a question than a comment even tough I observed a teacher doing a PP presentation where his students were using the clickers and I believe it’s great at engaging students and giving an immediate feedback to the teacher on their learning outcome.
    My question is: where can we buy them? and how expensive are they?

  4. MaryB says:

    Bonnie – It’s been my experience that “clickers” are purchased from a vendor. If you use the search term “classroom performance system” you should get a list of products and vendors. The price depends on the sophistication of the system and the number of clickers. If you have an interactive white board system, clickers may be an optional component that is integrated with the system. I would check with your school or district technology coordinator to find out what options you have.
    Just as an example–the system that I use is a stand-alone system (not associated with an interactive board). The key pads are simple, and there are 32 in the set. The ball park price was somewhere between $1000-1500 (it’s been a while since we purchased it).

  5. MaryB says:

    Another resource describing “clickers’ and how they can be used. It’s from a university, but the information is applicable to K-12 settings.

  6. Clifton Keller says:

    Sometime a large institution or school district can make arrangements to provide equipment at good prices. I understand that some schools sell the clickers to the students thus avoiding a lot of problems.

  7. Stella says:

    Yes Develop application to make you smart device as a clicker.

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