Clickers have become a popular tool for engaging students in the classroom as part of a pedagogy known as “Peer Instruction.” This teaching method was developed by Eric Mazur, a physicist at Harvard, in the early 1990s and is designed to deepen student learning by engaging them in the process of answering and discussing questions in the classroom. Peer Instruction allows students the opportunity to practice and apply concepts they have just learned. Traditionally, clickers and Peer Instruction have been associated with use in the physical and biological sciences. That did not stop Maureen Feeley, lecturer with potential security of employment (LPSOE) in the Department of Political Science at UC San Diego, from exploring how clickers and Peer Instruction could be used to improve student learning in her upper-division undergraduate political science courses.
“With Peer Instruction, every single student in the class has the opportunity to participate.”
“I decided to experiment with [Peer Instruction] because a large and growing body of evidence-based research demonstrates it significantly enhances student learning,” Feeley said. She cited a study by Catherine Crouch and Eric Mazur from 2001 that found Peer Instruction resulted in double and triple absolute learning gains. Clickers are essential for Feeley in facilitating Peer Instruction because of the ease with which they allow her to engage students and gather data about their performance. As Feeley pointed out, “If we were to do this in a large lecture hall without technology, grading 300 questions—even just one quick question—is a considerable time investment.” Clickers, on the other hand, “provide immediate feedback, without overburdening graduate TAs or faculty.”
In adapting Peer Instruction to her political science courses, Feeley explains that she asks two different types of questions. “Factual questions are based on students’ readings for that day or on a concept I’ve just presented in class. These questions are designed, pedagogically, to heighten critical reading and thinking skills, and to provide me with immediate feedback as to whether students have understood the concept just presented.” The second type of question she asks are discussion questions. As she explained, “these are designed to provide students in large lecture classes with the opportunity to practice making logical, persuasive, and evidence-based arguments to support their positions in the context of a small group.”
Regardless of the kind of question Feeley asks, students always “click in” or vote individually first. On factual questions, “if 80% or more of the students answer correctly, we move forward with the lecture. If not, students break into groups of three to five students with their seatmates to discuss the question; that is, they engage in “peer instruction.” After discussion with their seatmates, they then “vote” again. This process is repeated, with additional instructor explanation, until a large number of students answer correctly. Feeley then displays a histogram of student responses so that initial and final responses can be compared and discussed.
The learning impacts in Feeley’s classes have been impressive. She has found that classroom participation has increased dramatically, especially in large lecture halls with 200 to 300 students. In a regular lecture without Peer Instruction at UC San Diego, Feeley says she has found that, “you’ll still get students who participate, but typically it’s only a small subset of the class. With Peer Instruction, every single student in the class has the opportunity to participate.” Feeley’s own research on the use of Peer Instruction in the undergraduate classroom has shown how valuable Peer Instruction can be. “One of the things that was surprising to me in the end-of-term anonymous student surveys we conducted is that students report a much stronger sense of belonging and inclusion in my Peer Instruction classes.
“…The benefits for student learning are significant and more than outweigh the costs.”
They report feeling less anonymous and that their perspectives on course materials matter, not just for their own learning, but for their classmates as well,” Feeley explained, “Ultimately, I’ve found that Peer Instruction creates a more supportive learning community and a greater sense of responsibility among the students for their own learning. That is, students feel more responsible for coming to class, and for coming to class prepared, because they do not want to let their fellow seatmates down in the small group discussions. I, also, have learned much about student learning from the insightful comments students have provided. For example, many students have reported that they read in a more active and engaged way because they’re constantly trying to anticipate what kind of clicker question might be asked.”
Feeley strongly encourages other faculty at UC San Diego to experiment with Peer Instruction and clickers. “Yes, it takes some time to develop questions and implement the pedagogy, so there’s that cost, but I think the benefits for student learning are significant and more than outweigh the costs. Also, it’s possible to introduce Peer Instruction gradually with just one or two questions per class period,” Feeley explained. “The research on improved learning outcomes with Peer Instruction is extremely robust. Not only do students find the pedagogy improves their learning and their motivation to learn, but as an instructor, Peer Instruction provides you with immediate feedback as to whether students understand theories, concepts, and ideas presented. This type of immediate feedback inevitably makes you a better teacher.”
Faculty who are interested in learning more about Peer Instruction can contact the Center for Teaching Development. Academic Computing & Media Services (ACMS) can also provide technical support for faculty who want to begin using clickers in their classrooms.
Faculty Feature is a series of articles highlighting faculty and their creative use of technology in the classroom. Check back regularly to find out how UC San Diego faculty are moving the future of education forward!