Clickers & quality of teaching
Yesterday, Jacques Steinberg wrote an article about the use of "clickers" in education: More Professors Give Out Hand-Held Devices to Monitor Students and Engage Them. I'm glad to read about this pedagogical tool in the Times, but it's important to mention that the benefits of the clickers, when backed by a great pedagogical approach, go far beyond the article description.
In The Physics of Music & Sound, a course from the General Education program at Harvard, the clickers are part of the numerous tools Pr. Eric Heller uses to engage the students in a deeper level of reflection (I was a Head Teaching Fellow for the class in the Spring). He uses them to make the class as participatory as possible. Discussions, live demonstrations of experiments, student demonstration of voice and instruments, computer experiments that you can also easily do, peer instruction and PRS "clicker” participation are all part of the experience.
In Pr. Heller's class, peer instruction (a fundamental aspect of learning as advocated by Pr. Eric Mazur at Harvard) is systematically combined to clicker questions. A "good question" for Pr. Heller is not always be a question where everyone answers "correctly", but rather a question with a split answer 33 %, 33%, 33% over three choices: that makes for lots of interesting discussions. And discussions sometimes really drive scientific research! Taking attendance may be useful, but should remain a side-effect!
Many students don't buy clickers, but a one-year license to use their phone instead.
Using clickers to improve the learning quality is an art that educators have to learn!