Expanding classroom dialogue  

By Karen Herland

At some point, most professors look out into the classroom only to be confronted by a sea of blank faces.

“You just aren’t sure whether the material is going over their heads, or if the concept has already been covered at length in another course,” said Tim Stelzer at a recent workshop coordinated by the Centre for Teaching and Learning Services (CTLS).

Stelzer was presenting one possible tool to help professors determine how well their content is being understood by students, the iClicker.

Stelzer distributed iClickers to the nearly four-dozen professors who attended his workshop on April 17 and invited them to use the devices before offering an explanation. Those present easily understood that the gadget, resembling a remote control, could be used to select an answer to a multiple-choice question.

In turn, that answer (along with everyone else’s) is immediately plotted onto a graph on the class computer screen, and, if desired, displayed back to the group. Students see their answer as an unidentifiable one among many, that alone, may get some students to participate more than in a regular lecture environment.

Some of those who attended Stelzer’s workshop are already using similar technology in the classroom, and were interested in his technology. Others were just curious about what the technology could do. Janette Barrington, a Teaching Consultant with CTLS, said 19 of those who attended were interested in implementing the technology themselves. She adds that the technology is not necessarily a tool for all disciplines, but in pilot tests this year has shown to be useful in science instruction.

“When I give a traditional lecture, I might try to engage students with questions. But it’s difficult to get more than a few students to respond,” said Robert Cassidy, a part-time professor in the psychology department. He’s tried iClicker technology in two classes.

“You can get students involved without relying on their level of confidence or ability to speak in front of a class,” he notes. The anonymity of the process allows them to test their understanding of the material and get immediate feedback. In some cases, “they might have been wrong, but so was 40% of the class,” says Cassidy, adding that the strength of numbers makes them more comfortable talking about the reason for their misunderstanding.

As a professor, he finds that kind of immediate information precious. He can determine, almost in real time, what concepts need more elaboration, and when he can move swiftly through material. “It allows me to have a finger on the pulse of what the class is thinking.”

The technology itself is easy to integrate. Instructors receive a box through CTLS that they can plug into the classroom computer’s USB port. With that hardware student responses can be tabulated and displayed.

Each student is expected to purchase an iClicker in the same way they would purchase a textbook for a course. The devices (currently priced at about $37) can then be sold back to the bookstore (at half their current value) for resale in the same ways texts are now.

The technology affords other possibilities as well, “it allows me to have the class work with information at a more sophisticated level,” says Cassidy.

For instance, instead of simply lecturing on the differences between two or three theories, he can present a scenario and ask students which theory supports the example. Students can also debate the different responses.

Cassidy acknowledges that determining what questions to ask and how to respond to information in a classroom setting does take some initial practice. “But it allows you to get at the root of misconceptions.” He says the more he uses the technology, the easier it is to develop ways to integrate it. “That process makes you a much better teacher.” He is also convinced that the students find class time more valuable.


Concordia University