Marking classes interactive: better learning or just more fun?

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Sandra Porter

One of the newfangled ideas that's popped up in education in the past few years has been notion that more interactive methods of teaching will lead to better results.

There's an appealing logic to this notion.


Figure 1. A traditional lecture may not be the ideal way to transfer information. 

To quote Eric Mazur (1) quoting D. Huff (2):

I once heard someone describe the lecture method as a process whereby the lecture notes of the instructor get transferred to the notebooks of students without passing through the brains of either.

But how do you change?  What are the alternatives? 

One tool for change is the clicker.  As easy as a remote control and twice as fun.  An instructor asks a question, posts a selection of answers and students use their clickers to select their choices.

Voila!  A computer collects and graphs the answers and the instructor gets to show a graph of the results. 

Why might be these helpful in a class? 
  • We know you have 30 seconds to transfer new information from short term memory to longer term storage.  Asking a question might reinforce that process. 
  • You might stay awake and more engaged if you know you're going to have to participate.

Then, there's the question of data. Chad has an interesting take on clickers and the whole movement towards more interactive lecturing.

Chad asks:  What do the students think?  and further, suggests that different types of students might have different opinions on the benefits of clickers.

I don't know about physics teaching, but there is plenty of research on student attitudes in biology.  A quick search through the contents page of the Life Sciences Education journal yields 23 papers on the use of clickers in the class.  And, since this journal is open access, you can even read them! 

One theme comes through pretty consistently, clickers may help a wider group of students become more engaged with the material.  And, this may be especially true in courses for non-biology majors.  Cosgrove and Curran (3), for example found that all their students had a positive opinion of clickers, but there were differences in learning gains.  They found that non-majors showed a dramatic increase in learning and remembered material better when clickers were used.  The science majors didn't show this kind of result.

Another study (4) found a similar result.  Students in six different biology courses had favorable attitudes toward the clickers, but it was the students in the lower division classes who liked them better and had a better response.

  1. Eric Mazur. January 2 2009.  Farewell Lecture?  Science Vol. 323. no. 5910, pp. 50 - 51.
  2. D. Huff.  D. Huff, How to Lie with Statistics (Norton, New York, 1954).
  3. K. Crossgrove, K. L. Curran (2008). Using Clickers in Nonmajors- and Majors-Level Biology Courses: Student Opinion, Learning, and Long-Term Retention of Course Material Cell Biology Education, 7 (1), 146-154 DOI: 10.1187/cbe.07-08-0060
  4. R. W. Preszler, A. Dawe, C. B. Shuster, M. Shuster (2007). Assessment of the Effects of Student Response Systems on Student Learning and Attitudes over a Broad Range of Biology Courses Cell Biology Education, 6 (1), 29-41 DOI: 10.1187/cbe.06-09-0190

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