Lectures, Clickers and Quizzes

It’s 9.40am. You are sitting in a nice warm lecture theatre. There are no windows. The lecturer is talking, their slides projected onto a big screen. You’re feeling sleepy but this course doesn’t seem too hard – you can always learn the key concepts from the lecture notes before the exams. And so in May and the exams are looming and it is warm and sunny, you drag yourself into the library, pull out the lecture notes (which seemed so clear in the lecture) and, wait, what is this nonsense? It makes no sense…

There is a trap here; what was appearing to make sense in the lecture hasn’t been learnt properly, by which I mean sufficiently embedded in the brain of our student that they can remember and, hopefully, understand the central concepts. Everything in the lecture is set up for you to learn the material there and then. The risk, then, is that it almost-but-doesn’t-quite penetrate the grey matter and so gradually all that knowledge slowly evaporates…

As you can probably tell I believe you either understand the topic in the lecture, or not at all. So what can I, the lecturer, do to help?

I believe encouraging the students to think helps their recall and one way to do this is to get them to answer a question. It doesn’t have to be difficult, but I think you do have to ask it shortly after you’ve explained the concept so it is still fresh in their mind.

To do this I tried using clickers this year. These are small credit-card sized boxes with buttons on; each student gets one and then the lecturer, using special software on their laptop, puts a question on the screen and then they have to choose an answer. The results are then displayed on a graph and you can discuss which answer was correct and why.

An obvious barrier to using clickers is you have to buy them. So in previous years I have tried using a website, Socrative, and then asking the students to connect to it using their smartphones. But not everyone has a smartphone, which is unfair, and having to get on the wireless network, find the website etc which makes it clunky.

I aimed have a quiz half-way through each lecture (this is also a change and should therefore help their attention after the quiz) and another one at either the end, or occasionally, the beginning. Each quiz was very simple; between 6 and 10 simple statements to which they had to decide whether they were true or false. Very occasionally I would try and catch them out to illustrate a common misconception.

Two comments:

Using the clickers to do questions was very useful to assess [our] understanding as we went along.

The clickers are sick.

Some more quantitative feedback:

  • “The clickers were easy to use”. (96% agreed)
  • “The quizzes helped me remember the key concepts from each lecture” (95% agreed)
  • “I’d like more lectures to use clickers for quizzes” (90% agreed)

So I’m going to view the clickers as a success.

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