Montana State University

Clickers bring new efficiency to some MSU classrooms

July 19, 2005 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


MacLeod Hageman of Glasgow uses a clicker to respond to a physics lecture at Montana State University (MSU photo by Erin Raley).    High-Res Available

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Remote controls have found their way into Montana State University classrooms, but it's not because instructors like Larry Kirkpatrick and Greg Francis have somehow lost their students' attention to hidden televisions.

Kirkpatrick and Francis have a reputation for memorable instruction. They teach principles of physics by riding rockets across the floor, lying on a bed of nails and standing firm when a bowling ball swings at their faces. They are now using remote controls, which they call "clickers," to make sure their students understand the material they're presenting.

"Simply introducing technology does not necessarily lead to improved student learning. Technology needs to be introduced as an aid to something you already know works," Kirkpatrick said at a seminar on clickers.

Kirkpatrick started using the clickers last fall in Physics 103. He said they not only enhanced learning, but improved attendance and classroom participation. Students became active learners. Attention spans lengthened. Francis and Jeff Adams, Assistant Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, started using the clickers this past spring in Physics 205 and 206.

"This is good for the students. It ought to be done," Francis said. "If you care about what time you are going to go home, there's a little bit of work involved."

Students buy the 12-key clickers as part of a package that includes their textbook, Kirkpatrick said. Then they take the clickers to class, and the instructors programs his computer so each student is linked to a particular clicker.

As the instructor presents his material, he asks multiple-choice questions that show up on a screen in front of the room, Kirkpatrick said. The students have from a few seconds to several minutes to respond. When their time is up, a graph or chart appears on the screen to show the percentage of students that gave each possible answer. If too many students answered incorrectly, the instructor reviews the material or asks them to discuss the problem with their neighbors.

The computer lets the instructors know who is or isn't responding, Kirkpatrick said. It also allows students to answer anonymously, an advantage for those who tend otherwise to shut down when they respond incorrectly.

"We can do some of the same things we have been doing in a much more efficient way," Kirkpatrick said.

Adams said MSU currently has no plans to introduce the clickers on a campus-wide scale, but he is investigating the possibility.

"Certainly, if the use of personal response systems (clickers) grows, we would want compatible systems so that students could use a single device for all of their classes," he said. "This semester (Spring 2005) is the first experiment using a system in a large class setting, and we are learning a great deal that will help us and hopefully other departments as well."

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu