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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. 

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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


  1. #1 Zen Faulkes
    January 19, 2009

    The link to Chad’s article is broken.

  2. #2 nuclear.kelly
    January 19, 2009

    Personally, I dislike clickers, and the trend toward “actively engaging students” in the classroom. I realize that more and more students sleep through more and more lectures, but perhaps that’s because we’ve become so lax in our entry requirements for college? People now feel like they’re entitled to go to college, which leads later to the feeling that they’re entitled to a good grade. The traditionally “good” students (myself included) suffer because 1) the standard must be lowered, and 2) wasting time with clickers and other gimmicks detracts from the amount of information that can be conveyed during a normal lecture. College is a privilege, and should be treated as such. If you want to pass, if you want a good grade, you have to work for it. You have to “want” it (if you’ll excuse the expression); not merely wanting a degree because you believe you “deserve” one, but wanting the degree because you want to learn and do what it takes to get one.
    Alternatively, one must always take into account that everyone has the potential to have a different learning style. Traditional lectures do, in truth, cater to a rather specific learning style. That said, I fear the current swing toward “active” and, frankly, “tactile” learning styles is an overreaction to the historic tendency toward the traditional lecture style. In switching modes, we’ll lose those students who learn best via the traditional lecture. In other words, we were sick of one side, but in reacting we’ve gone too far the other way. We have to find a balance in the middle, somewhere that allows all students a fair and optimal chance at success.
    That’s my take, anyway. For your future information, there is lots of information on teaching styles in physics – the University of Colorado at Boulder has an entire department dedicated to “Physics Education Research.”

  3. #3 Sandra Porter
    January 19, 2009

    Thanks zen,

    The link is fixed now.

  4. #4 Sandra Porter
    January 19, 2009

    Thanks Nuclear Kelly,

    I don’t have any experience with clickers myself, since I don’t teach large lecture classes.

    In some ways though, I suspect that their greatest benefit would be to instructors because they give the instructors some feedback on whether students understood a concept or not.

    If you’re teaching, and you don’t have feedback, you’re left with mind-reading and that’s not always easy to do.

  5. #5 Hugh Miller
    January 19, 2009

    The real issue with the traditional lecture is that it is too passive. I think that one needs to use a variety of different techniques. For example, I might start a lecture on the board, move to the computer with interactive handouts and then show a few PowerPoint slides to summarize the concepts. One has to be able to be flexible to make sure the students are understanding the material.

    Using a variety of approaches will cover the variety of learning styles that your students might have.

  6. #6 Art
    January 19, 2009

    It has long been understood that emotion drives memory. After twenty-five years I still clearly remember the lesson where a professor threw the chair across the room at the beginning of an 8AM class. The crash and shock of it woke everyone up and etched it into memory. He was also known for jumping up on desks, slamming books on the floor, getting into peoples faces in a threatening manner and generally doing anything else he deemed necessary to get his message locked into memory.

    A friend of mine, a PhD in physical chemistry, taught a guy who hadn’t gone to even a single class or cracked a book a semesters worth of organic chemistry over a marathon three day weekend training session by using punishment and reward.

    They would read a chapter and cover concepts. After each concept was covered he would be quizzed. Every right answer he would get an M&M. Every wrong answer he would get punched in the shoulder. Heavily bruised the guy got a B+ and to this day he remembers most of what he learned.

    People generally care and pay attention to those things they directly interact with. I have a hard time remembering lecturers who droned on about a subject I cared nothing for. Mostly I learned just enough for just long enough to get a grade. Ten minutes after the test it was gone.

  7. #7 eric
    January 19, 2009

    Ok, I can see some good from clickers, but personally Fig. 1 does not support. That “student” needs a kick in the…

    Personally I like one of my favorite professors methods of figuring out if students have internalized the information and “get it” he asks a question and hurls an eraser shortly after. Keeps you on your toes so to speak. Very interactive.

  8. #8 Paul Murray
    January 19, 2009

    I have never understood the point of lectures *at all*. They are a holdover from the days before the invention of the alphabet.

  9. #9 Bill Graziadei, Ph.D.
    January 20, 2009

    Clearly, this is only one type of interactivity and depending on how, when, where and why it is implemented may good or bad.

    As an aside, you don’t necessarily need ‘clickers’ in our Web 2.0 global communication world if cell phones are allowed in schools, meetings, conferences. They are available easily when one uses a virtual classroom.

    PollEveryWhere is a free online tool that allows users to participate in a poll that yields real-time response by using their cellphones.

    Participants can send a text message to the appropriate number as given on the poll that you design. If you have the graph projected for a class, conference, etc. to see, they can watch the graph update immediately as votes are cast. There is no need to even refresh the screen.

    Cellphones now become real-time response keypads! However, generally cell phones are not (85%) allowed in American high schools and colleges/universities. So, the question remains, “Should cell phones be allowed for use under controlled situations?”

    What are your thoughts?

  10. #10 Aaron
    January 20, 2009

    Clickers can be good, but for the most part I think that they distract professors from working on what they really should be: Performance.

    The difference between a good lecturer and a bad one is night and day. I recently took a molecular bio class that was team taught. The first professor made the hour and a half fly by; the pacing of the class made it so that it was quicker to learn the material from her than to read it out of the book. She also was sure to make the material as relevant as possible to the future endeavors of most of the class (doctors and actual molecular/cell biologists).

    The other prof, an sort of old-school dude, made the minutes seem like hours. I regularly fell asleep and relied on the text and powerpoint lecture notes for the actual content of the course.

    The difference? The first prof made sure to treat the lecture as what it was: a performance with the purpose of instruction. You’re not getting up to the podium to speak to a college, friend, or any individual. You’re speaking to a group that has paid for a service with a complex set of reasons and motivations for being there. The point is that you, the instructor, have to provide some of that motivation yourself. The best way to do this is simple: make the students care about your opinion of them by gaining their respect. Even though I never met the first prof from the mol bio course, I respected her ability as an instructor and scientist, and was more inclined to challenge myself to met her challenges (in the form of the exams).

    The best use of the performance mindset I’ve seen is by an english prof. He gave lectures as though he was acting, full of elaborate hand gestures and poetic oration. Some students had a hard time swallowing it, but they were few; by almost any measure, he was the most popular prof on campus. All because he understood what his audience needed and cared enough to do it.

  11. #11 Sandra Porter
    January 20, 2009

    Thanks all for your comments, it’s great to hear from you, Hugh!

    Aaron – I agree as a student that I’m much happier to attend interesting lectures from instructors who know how to deliver them well.

    What’s important to me though is the data. Despite my intuitive feeling that an interesting lecture should be a better learning experience, the data simply don’t support that idea. The data support interactivity and learning through multiple pathways – auditory, visual, sensory, and kinesthetic.

  12. #12 Lifewish
    January 24, 2009

    I have great fun looking back over my lecture notes. The ones from my first lecture of the day tend to be fairly neat. The ones from my fourth lecture of the day are inevitably covered with all these strange tick-marks on the page.

    That’s the shape your pen draws when you fall asleep in lectures but wake up before your head hits the table.

    I still cannot see the point of most lectures. There is no way you’re going to manage to personalise the material to 300 students simultaneously, which means that most of what you’re doing is going to be no more informative than what those students can read in a book. So, given that the reading speed of the average student will be greater than the writing speed of the average lecturer, why not just point ’em at the relevant books?

    Don’t get me wrong – it is possible for lecturers to add value. But even the best lecturer can only improve on the course texts for a certain proportion of the time. For everything else there’s the library. It’s just as informative and doesn’t drone quite so soporifically.

    Possibly I’m just bitter because I have slow handwriting. It’s hard to feel comfortable with lectures when the lecturer is four blackboards’ worth of material ahead of you, and there are only three blackboards in the lecture hall… And it’s hard to absorb any damn thing when what you’re writing down is ten minutes removed from what the lecturer is saying.

  13. #13 Toaster
    January 27, 2009

    I recently got my B.S. and the physics courses I was required to take used a clicker. It annoyed me.

    1) Lecture hall desk spaces are small, maybe 10″x12″. So I am supposed to somehow have my binder for taking notes, my pen or pencil, the text, my coat, and whatever else I have with me balanced and organized between that tiny desk and my lap? A clicker just adds to the mess.

    2) Clickers turn lectures into a stupid spectator sport. The lecturer has to interrupt their flow, set up a question, and then encourage everyone to break out into small groups and figure out an answer while the time runs down on the screen. Then when time runs out and they see that only 80% of students responded, they re-open the system for answers for another minute and everyone waits or changes their answer.

    3) Cost. You want a student to pay tuition, buy a book, buy note-taking supplies, usually buy a computer for general class work, and then to also buy a little specialized gadget that can’t be used for anything else? I mean, they’re just WiFi doohickeys that I can’t even get useful parts from. Open source the wiring schematic and let students choose whether to build one or buy one.

    Besides, LEDs are cooler.

    That being said, the physics courses were really good about doing demonstrations of concepts with massive capacitors et al.

  14. #14 Sandra Porter
    January 27, 2009

    It would be better if all students just had iPhones and use an iPhone app. That would save on clickers and you’d have something that could do more than click.

  15. #15 netlog
    February 6, 2009

    thanqüs y by uquR

  16. #16 Daryl McCullough
    February 8, 2009

    I agree with Paul. This might be an idiosyncrasy in my learning style, but in all my years of college, I never learned much at all from lectures. I went to the lectures, but the notes I took were only good for figuring out what topic I should look up in textbooks. My real learning always came from textbooks.

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