The Research Is In

Using Clickers? A Note of Caution

A new study shows that the popular edtech devices can improve fact retention but hinder deeper understanding.

June 21, 2017
©RJH School/flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

If you’re using personal response systems, or clickers, a new study provides a note of caution: While they seem to boost students’ ability to retain factual knowledge, that may come at the cost of deeper conceptual understanding.

Clickers—handheld remote controls like the iClicker or Turning Point that allow students to answer multiple-choice questions posed by the teacher—have exploded in popularity as a tool to conveniently gauge student understanding. Used by millions of students in schools and colleges around the world, these devices help teachers quickly see if they should spend more time on a lesson or move on. (Check out this Teaching Channel video to learn more about clickers.)

A study published in the latest issue of Computers & Education examined clicker use among 858 undergraduate students in four semesters of a lecture-oriented introductory biology course and 299 students in four semesters of a problem-oriented introductory physics course. In each course, the instructor used clickers for two semesters; the other two semesters served as a control group.

In the lecture-oriented biology course, using clickers boosted student scores on factual questions by almost 12 percentage points, so clickers seemed to make a big difference in helping students retain facts. Student scores on conceptual questions dropped about 3 percentage points.

In the problem-oriented physics course, however, scores on factual questions stayed flat when clickers were used—and dropped a significant 9 percentage points on conceptual questions. Struggling students fared the worst, while students who were already familiar with the material did well whether clickers were used or not.

Clickers still have a place in classrooms, the researchers stress. Prior research on clickers has generally had positive outcomes. On top of improving students’ ability to retain factual knowledge, clickers have been shown to boost attendance, class participation, and enjoyment of class material.
The takeaway: With clickers, context matters. As useful as they may be with facts, if you want students to develop a deep understanding of a topic, stick to discussions and problem solving.

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