Recent “clicker” trends boost student engagement and learning at UBC

Peek inside an empty lecture theatre at UBC, and you’ll likely find a traditional-looking room large enough to hold several hundred students, with seating that slopes down to a central lecture platform backed by a slide projection screen. Peek inside again while Professor Roland Stull is teaching one of his popular Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science classes, and the notion of “traditional” is quickly dispelled.

Professor Roland StullStull has been teaching for 18 years at UBC, and is an expert on numerical weather forecasting and weather-related disasters. Along with a passion for engaging students, he has a keen eye for technological innovations that make higher ed teaching more effective. This week, he shares with BCcampus some recent trends in student response systems – wireless, handheld devices commonly known as “clickers” – that are boosting student participation in the classroom.

Think, pair, and share

During a typical lecture for his first-year course, The Catastrophic Earth: Natural Disasters, Stull periodically poses a multiple-choice question, then has students think of the answer on their own and respond with their clicker. An instant histogram shows how they did. If most got it right, he commends the class and reinforces why it is right. If most got it wrong, he has them form into small groups to debate the answer before responding with the clicker again.

“The effect is energizing,” says Stull. “Students are alert, participating, and engaged, as opposed to sitting there with their eyes glazed over as the lecturer’s words wash past them. And professors enjoy it because they get feedback on how they’re doing. If after the second question, students still don’t have the concept figured out, I give a mini-lecture on the spot. I can change the lecture as much as needed.”

Stull extends the think, pair, share method to exams. “It’s amazing to see students smiling and laughing while they debate an answer during the group part of an exam,” he says. “This is the best time for learning, and it has the most impact because they’re primed and ready to learn the answers.”

Wander-style lecturing

Lecturing from the front of the class is no longer necessary. With a clicker remote control in hand and a clip-on-mike, Stull does what he calls “mountain climbing,” or wandering up and down the stairs in the lecture theatre. “I am literally lecturing while I’m wandering, moving slides forward with the remote control and posing clicker questions. Students appreciate this style of lecturing because they feel more engaged. I can look every student in the eye and be up close to them, even in a large theatre.”

Just-in-time teaching

When the concepts get more in-depth, clicker use becomes more pronounced. For example, in his equation-heavy, second-year course for atmospheric science majors, called Meteorology of Storms, Stull combines clickers with just-in-time teaching (JiTT), a method developed by Harvard University professor, Eric Mazur. For every upcoming class, students get a reading assignment and have to complete an online quiz by 11 pm the night before. Stull’s teaching assistant collates the responses and provides a summary by 11 am the next day. Stull then has 3 hours before class time to design clicker questions that probe any difficulties students have with the reading.

The result is a class heavy on peer learning, and that’s the point: “Learning new material is best done independently at home, whereas developing ways of thinking and interacting and debate is done in the classroom,” says Stull.

The most recent versions of clickers now allow students to see more on-screen and type in complete words. Stull has yet to incorporate them into his lectures, as he is mindful of the work involved in adopting any new tool and the need to use technology in a way that does not waste effort. Nevertheless, clickers are ingrained in his teaching style and he says he would not go back to not using them. It’s about “seeing students in action, working hard to learn new things.”


Photo credit: Mark Cohene