A Future of Clickers

The Worlds Bank’s Development Impact blog has good analysis of the recent Science paper on the potential impact of classroom clickers. First, the study:

The sections were taught the same for 11 weeks. Then in the 12th week, one of the sections was taught as normal by an experienced faculty member with high student evaluations, while the other was taught by two of Wieman’s grad students (the other two co-authors of this paper), using the latest in interactive instruction. This included pre-class reading assignments, pre-class reading quizzes, in-class clicker questions (using a device like the audience uses to vote with in e.g. Who wants to be a millionaire?), student-student discussion, small-group active learning tasks, and targeted in-class instructor feedback…

The students looked similar on test scores and other characteristics before this 12th week. Then the authors find (i) attendance was up 20% in the interactive class; (ii) students were more engaged in class (as measured by third-party observers monitoring from the back rows of the lecture theatre), and (iii) on the 12 question test, students in the interactive class got an average of 74 percent of the questions right, while those taught using traditional method scored only 41 percent – a 2.5 standard deviation effect.

And now the critique:

One week is a really short time to look at effects…The graduate students teaching the class certainly had extra incentive to do extra well in this week of teaching…The test was low stakes, counting for at most 3% of final grade…Despite them calling this an “experiment”, which it is in the scientific sense of any intervention being an experiment to try something out, there is no randomization going on anywhere here, and the difference-in-difference is only done implicitly.

The biggest problem for me is that the impact of this line of work is ultimately dependent on clickers. The intervention contains a whole slew of good instructional practices (student-student discussion, small-group active learning tasks, targeted in-class instructor feedback), but we already know that these things are good. The reason we don’t do them is because the practices they are supposed to replace (e.g. lecturing) are institutionalized. More research is not the solution to that problem.

Clickers require less radical change and they have the potential to be easy, cheap, efficient, and quickly scalable. If clickers are what’s important, why implement such a multi-faceted intervention? Why not design a more robust intervention (more than one week of treatment) based solely on clickers?

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