[Repost from my 4/28/10 entry at The Active Class]
Your lecture is scheduled for 50, 75, perhaps 90 minutes. Maybe it’s a topic the students like, or you have a popular course, and they file into the room buzzing with anticipation. After 20 minutes or so, you feel the room’s energy starting to fade. Students are texting, reading the paper, checking Facebook, or just spacing out. Sooner or later, whether we like it or not, and regardless of class size, it happens. When it does, or possibly before we even get to that point, we often start thinking about “student engagement.”
“Engaging students” can signify many things. It might be about presentation style; maybe you are as much a showman as a lecturer. It might be about the “hook,” as you find intriguing or controversial ways to introduce and discuss a topic. Or it might be about making the students interact, whether it’s with you, with the material, or with each other. No matter what path to engagement you prefer, it usually boils down to getting and keeping students’ attention.
Clickers are one way to increase engagement; this benefit has been widely reported, both anecdotally and empirically, especially in science and social-science courses. The large lectures standard in those fields are generally less common in the humanities, although we’re seeing larger class sizes and the transformation of some seminars into lectures in the face of budget crises. How might clickers help us engage students in the humanities, especially in larger courses?
One of the universal uses of clickers is to punctuate a lecture and vary its pacing. Stopping the lecture every 10-15 minutes for a clicker question or two serves several purposes. It can wake the students up just when they might be starting to fade away. They are then are forced to become more active in responding to (and presumably thinking about) a question. Even when clicker participation constitutes a small fraction of the total course grade, students will often pay more attention to the lecture when there are coveted points at stake. Even those students who usually resist engagement in class—those whom Graham et al. call “reluctant participators”—will participate.
Clicker questions can also be used to lessen the amount of actual lecturing that we do. The responses to a question can spur discussion; depending on the class size, you can either turn the lecture hall into a large discussion section, or you can allow the students time to talk things over in pairs or small groups. Peer instruction of this sort goes hand-in-hand with clicker systems. The interactivity can reinvigorate a class in just a few minutes.
In many humanities courses, we’re examining cultural or political issues from particular points of view. Another way to engage students is to use the clicker questions to set the scene or to create both relevance and interest. A colleague of mine, in an attempt to introduce the ideas of consumer culture and symbols, asked her class what kinds of things they did with their Barbie dolls when they were young. She used a handful of responses to create an impromptu clicker survey that showed most people engaging in similar activities. The students realized that “culture” was not just an abstract idea, but something they have a direct relationship with.
Another type of pre-question is the opinion poll. A controversial issue—of which there is no shortage in humanities classes—can be introduced with a question asking to what degree the students agree or disagree with a position. Once they have expressed an opinion, students often feel that they have a vested interest in the discussion, whether it is to defend their own ideas or to learn about others. As it becomes clear that the lecture content or assigned reading has a direct bearing on the issue at hand, this increased investment makes the material more real to them. These and other types of questions can help students connect with the topic at hand, giving them a stake in the discussion—and a reason to pay better attention.
Attention is the name of the game. It’s a no-brainer, but the more students pay attention, the more they’ll learn from a lecture. They will also enjoy the course more, which can create a positive energy-feedback loop for instructors. We know that it’s not easy to hold a student’s attention for an hour. Breaking the lecture up and making the time investment more personal for students will make things a lot easier for both students and instructors.
For more information on clickers and engagement:
Bart, Mary. “Can Clickers Enhance Student Learning?” Faculty Focus. 18 Nov. 2009.
Bruff, Derek. “Engaging Students with Clickers.” Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009. 1-38. Print.
Butchart, Sam, Toby Handfield, and John Bigelow. Peer Instruction in the Humanities. Strawberry Hills: The Carrick Inst for Learning and Teaching in Higher Ed, 2007. Print.
Draper, Steve W., and Margaret I. Brown. “Increasing Interactivity in Lectures Using an Electronic Voting System.” Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 20: 81-94. Print.
Graham, Charles R., Tonya R. Tripp, Larry Seawright and George L. Joeckel III. “Empowering or Compelling Reluctant Participators Using Audience Response Systems.” Active Learning in Higher Education 8.3: 233-58. Print.
Patry, Marc. “Clickers in Large Classes: From Student Perceptions towards an Understanding of Best Practices.” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 3.2 (July 2009).