Julie Wilson, received a Rapid Response Grant to buy electronic voting handsets for use in Mathematics.
On the quiz show “Who wants to be a millionaire?” ask the audience is often more effective than ‘phone a friend. In lectures too, electronic voting systems, or clickers as they are often called, can be valuable teaching aids. At a workshop on their use, speakers reported positive feedback from students who were not only asked to read material in preparation for lectures, but to actually participate in them. Others used the devices to poll opinions on issues before and after discussion, which I initially thought might work in biology or social sciences, where ethical questions or personal opinion can be voiced, but not in mathematics where there are right or wrong answers. Simple questions with a “correct answer” can be used to test understanding and get vital feedback, but clickers can also be used to get students to discuss ideas before voting. For example, in statistics, common misconceptions on what a p-value actually means, that can be put up for consideration. At the workshop, one criticism from the audience was that clickers questions take up too much of the time needed to cover the course material. This was dismissed with the retaliatory question “what do you mean by covered? Do you mean you said it once?” Knowing which concepts are understood and which points require more explanation puts the emphasis on learning rather than on teaching.
Students will often not say that you are going too fast or they can’t hear what you are saying until they fill in a procedural questionnaire halfway through a module. I have used clickers to check such things. I have not yet dared to use clickers with a just-in-time approach to teaching. The idea of asking students to read material in advance and then steer lectures to what they feel they need most help with is more than a little scary, but I intend to try soon with PhD students taking a taught course. Without being very adventurous, I have found clickers extremely useful for feedback in lectures and the fun element seems to encourage even the quietest students to contribute in problem classes.
Whilst clickers are new to most of us in Maths, other Departments use them regularly to great effect. Psychology in particular has been using them for more than three years and most lecturers use them, even with large full year modules. I discovered how to assign answers to teams in Professor Peter Thomson’s clickers training session in Psychology. The session, based on a wine tasting, revealed that our team knew very little about grape varieties or country of origin, but we knew what we liked and it wasn’t always the expensive stuff. We laughed about our team’s lack of knowledge being displayed on the screen (well, we had been drinking), but I have discovered that the desire to be anonymous can override the competitive spirit where mathematics students are concerned. Large teams such as males versus females can work well though (also in staff meetings to elicit information for Athena SWAN applications).
We currently have just 40 handsets, but four mathematics staff members have used them over the last two terms. Jamie Wood has been using (Biology’s) clickers in his third year class for three years now as a way of doing worked examples during a lecture to maintain student engagement throughout the course. The students have been positive about the innovation and have enjoyed the interactivity. However, Jamie thinks it is important to get the way clickers are used right, with questions that are of the correct level to be completed within the lecture. The fact that the formulation of the questions – and the answers required for the multiple-choice format – can have a big effect on their utility took Jamie by surprise.
Evgeniy Zorin used clickers for the first time this term and found them very useful to “shake up” students and to concentrate their attention. With students from very different backgrounds taking the same module, Evgeniy found that the anonymity provided by clickers allowed all students to participate, including those who might feel less prepared than others. Evgeniy described clickers as a “magic wand” for teaching large classes with extremely varied backgrounds, but what did the students think? This year he says his feedback looks far better than in previous years and he thinks this is mainly due to the use of clickers.
Dr Julie Wilson is a reader with a joint appointment between the Departments of Mathematics and Chemistry. She is one of the resident staff in the York Centre for Complex Systems Analysis (YCCSA), an interdisciplinary research collaboration between the University’s science departments, and her research interests lie in the application of mathematical modelling and statistical methods to biological and chemical problems.
Dr Evgeniy Zorin is a lecturer in the Department of Mathematics.