Friday, March 21, 2014

Clickers and Curiosity

On Wednesday I attended a Teaching with Technology Brownbag at the U of I.  The session featured a panel of experienced instructors talking about use of clickers in their (large) lecture classes.  The panel was moderated by Jamie Nelson of CITES.  The panelists were

  • Darin Eastburn, Crop Sciences, Student perceptions of student response systems
  • Lena Hann, Kinesiology and Community Health, Anonymous questions
  • Brad Mehrtens, Molecular and Cellular Biology, Learning Catalytics – large enrollment course, group discussion
  • Mats Selen, Physics, Co-inventor of i>clicker
  • Julie Shapland, Accountancy, i>clicker in large enrollment courses

Ultimately, you can watch a recording of the session online.  The video hasn't been posted just yet.  It was a good and interesting session.  All the panelists make effective use of clickers in their classes to engage the students.  Four of the five use iClicker, which was invented here. Brad Mehrtens uses a different product, Learning Catalytics

I don't want to focus on the technology here, other than to note the obvious.  The clickers record the responses of each individual student (with iClicker this is the letter chosen in response to a multiple choice question, with Learning Catalytics more complex responses can be recorded) and then presents to the class the distribution of responses.   So clickers are unlike the traditional hand raising to ask a question, because with hand raising the student's identity is revealed while with clickers the identity associated with a particular response remains hidden to other students. 

Instead I want to begin with a very primitive question.  Why wouldn't the students be engaged in the class if there weren't clickers?  There seem to be three possible answers, two pertain to the course, the other to the students.  On the course, there is the subject matter (answer one) and where the lecture is held (answer two).  On the subject matter, Lena Hann's class is on human sexuality.  One might reasonably hypothesize that all students enrolled have inherent interest in the subject, even if the students are taking it to fill some requirement.  (I wish I had taken such a course as an undergrad.)  The other four courses I would describe as technical, meaning there is specific information delivered that requires specific skills or knowledge of prior context to process the information.  A lay person wouldn't have these specific skills or context specific knowledge.  Is there inherent interest in technical subject matter?  Let me leave that question for the moment, though it is the heart of the matter.  Before returning to it, I want to get at the other possible reasons for lack of engagement.

The second is the room where the lecture is held.  Foellinger Auditorium is the largest lecture hall on campus.  It can accommodate over 1,000 but campus policy caps large lectures at 750.  The next largest lecture hall is Lincoln Hall Theater.  According to the table on the FMS site, current capacity is 615.  There are then a handful of classrooms with capacity around 300.  In any of these large classrooms the space itself might distract the student.  Possible causes include - not being able to hear the instructor, not being able to see what is projected on the screen, physical discomfort from the seats, and classmates doing non-class things that are not detected by course staff and that serve to distract students sitting in close proximity.  Each of these issues is more pronounced in the back of the classroom.  Julie Shapland, who teaches in Foellinger, gave an interesting hypothetical about her walking right up to a student who was not participating with the clickers.  Were that to happen the student simply would get up and leave and she would have no idea who the student was, so she couldn't give a bad grade to the student for the behavior.  In effect, this means extrinsic motivation in such classrooms must be provided by carrots, not sticks. 

The third answer is that most millenials are manic multi-processors.  If they are not texting or checking Facebook every few minutes, they go bonkers.  Mats Selen, and I believe the other instructors who teach introductory physics as well, have a policy that students must put away laptops and cell phones during class so they aren't distracted by their electronic social tendencies.  Most instructors don't have such a policy and while Brad Mehrtens lauded Learning Catalytics, he also said he wasn't so naive as to believe students didn't check Facebook while in lecture.  One should also observe here the possibility of old fashioned diversions, e.g., daydreaming.  And it is also possible that a student who is paying attention nonetheless lingers on a point to make better sense of it, while the instructor has moved on.  On this last one, Darin Eastburn talked about using the iClicker to determine whether a significant segment of the class is confused on the current point, in which case the instructor should not move on but instead try to understand the source of the confusion and then rectify the matter as best as possible.

There seem to be two principal uses of clickers.  One is to gather attitudinal information, where members of the class are likely to vary in their held views.  The clicker question and response can then be used as an instant survey tool to get at those varying attitudes and to make the class as a whole aware that students differ in their perspectives.  The second is to pose a question that has a right answer and see how the class does in response.  If many of the responses are wrong but some are right, this provides a launch point for small groups of students to discuss the question among themselves.  Which is the right answer and why?  This process "works" if a redo of the clicker question then gets many more students to select the right answer.

Why do students participate in the clicker exercise rather than opt out?  For the most part this is because they get some course points for answering the question.  In the polling sort of questions, this must be participation credit, since there is no right answer.  Otherwise, credit could potentially depend on what answer the student supplied.  In the human sexuality course, there were some polling questions of a very personal nature posed.  Those were done anonymously - no credit.  Students then participate on a volunteer basis.  All students are interested in seeing the class distribution across these personal questions.  They volunteer their answers both because they feel safe in doing so and because it is the good citizen thing to do, since they understand the benefit from seeing the class distribution.

Several of the panelists report that the students want their clicker points.  It is a strong motivator.  This was true even in the human sexuality class, though here I believe we're referring to motivation to answer the clicker questions as distinct from motivation to follow (or attend) the lecture.  It also seemed, across the various presentations, that this student motivation for clicker points was there prior to them taking that particular class.  Indeed, Julie Shapland said that the students really want these points although she allocates so few of the course total in this manner that it may be irrational on the part of the students to participate with the clickers - there is a high likelihood that such participation will have no impact on their final course grade.

Now I want to return to my earlier question:  Is there inherent interest in technical subject matter?  Let me try to answer this via example, relying on my experience teaching intermediate microeconomics, a required course for students in the College of Business.  Most of them dislike, if not totally detest the course.  Yet the subject matter in intermediate microeconomics forms the basis of many of the things they will study.  Economic cost notions are extraordinarily important in accounting, consumer theory is the basis of much of the study of marketing, and to understand risk premiums in finance, one really needs to be steeped in the elements of decision making under uncertainty.  So there are reasons why Business students should find intermediate micro compelling, and a few do, but most do not.  The main reason is the style in which it is taught.  It entails a lot of math modeling, which these students are not getting in their other courses.  The students have all had the math prerequisite courses.  But most haven't internalized the subject matter of those courses in a way where it is second nature to use those tools for the economics.  Consequently, the entire course becomes a struggle and students don't want to struggle when they can't see the relevance in doing so.

How much of the rest of the courses that non-Business students take looks like intermediate microeconomics to Business students?  I don't know.  In my own recent teaching, an upper level undergraduate economics course where most of the students are Econ majors, I may be getting a biased view of the situation, because many Econ majors are Business major wannabes.  Biased or not, this is my general impression.

Students may claim inherent interest in a subject, particularly in their major, but my discipline suggests, via a theory called revealed preference, that it is far better to observe the student behavior and infer the preference from that then to solicit preference information directly.  I don't see freshmen and sophomores in my class.  The juniors and seniors who do take the course are for the most part so caught up in the quest for a good grade that it trumps any other possible motivation.  Since I do have the students write on a weekly basis, (some of) their thinking about course subject matter is more transparent to me as an instructor than it would be to most instructors in other upper level courses that don't have students do this writing.  For the most part their efforts reflect a mild interest in the subject, at best, and if they are expecting to get an "A" grade they are content with their efforts, and don't reflect at all on whether they might understand the subject at a deeper level if they spent more time on it.  Such deeper understanding doesn't appear to be a value in itself for the students.  But if students had inherent interest for the subject, my belief is that the students would crave a deeper understanding.

So my principal concern with the use of clickers is that it leverages the student desire for course points in a way where there is no countervailing activity that might appeal to inherent interest in the subject.  Multiple times during the session, the panelists stressed the clickers must be used in a way that shows what the instructor cares about.  This was in reference to the type of questions that are asked and how those questions tie into the lecture.  This makes sense and is an important point.  Yet the fact remains, the "currency" that makes use of the clickers work is the reward in course points.  Large class instructors care about their grading scheme in that it be fair, administered well, and motivate the students.  But they don't care about the points as currency the way they care about the subject matter they teach.  And that they rely on points as currency to communicate may severely limit their ability to communicate what they do care about the subject matter.

In my class, one thing I do is to post on occasion snippets of news articles along with links so students can find the full story.  Most of these posts are on topics that are related to course themes.  (When the Nobel in Economics is awarded, I also post about that.)  I give such posts a tag - Econ in the News.  It is very rare that they get comments and the access stats show quite limited access.  Ditto for my early PowerPoint presentations and associated videos.  Neither of these have assessments associated with them.  They are there to give the interested student access to an expanded set of materials relevant to the course.  In contrast, posts about the homework do get comments and are accessed a lot.  Yet by my earlier argument about revealed preference, the fact that I do create a good bit of non-assessed content and post that to the course site is indicative that I care about that stuff.  Students who access the course site on a regular basis can't help but notice that.

Several year ago I posted a critique of a video on motivation that featured the voice of Daniel Pink, both the extrinsic and intrinsic variety of motivation.  Pink's main point is that knowledge work is unlike manual labor in regard to motivation.  For the former, intrinsic motivation is a much more powerful motivator than any possible sort of financial reward.  Further, explicit pay for performance schemes are apt to backfire for knowledge work, where they do work well for manual labor, because such schemes serve as a distraction from the inherent interest in the problem at hand.  My critique of Pink was not based on this observation.  I concur on this point.  Rather it was based on his overly simple view of the economics.  He argued that pay should be used to initiate activity and then it should be generous, so it stays out of mind thereafter.

Even without explicit pay for performance, however, there are still salary increases and promotions to consider and the manager may also have to confront that the employee's external job market has improved dramatically as a consequence of success on the job in an earlier project.  In other words, re-initiation happens periodically, often for exogenous reasons, and may very well happen while the employee is immersed in a highly interesting project.  That's a real part of work life.  But taking Pink's point for where it is sensible, it is folly to have more frequent adjustments of pay based on performance, done by the whim of the manager rather than as a result of external factors.

Yet the analog is what we seem to do in teaching.  And with the clickers, where there are perhaps five questions in a fifty minute session, the frequency of the extrinsic reward is quite high.  Is it then interfering with intrinsic motivation for the subject that students might have?

It is unfair of me to lay this issue at the feet of the large class instructors.  They face many logistics hurdles on the way to teaching a tolerably good course. It rightfully is an issue that the entire campus should take on.  And thought that way, the intrinsic motivation issue has been addressed largely, to date, via outside-of-class means.  Students can engage in undergraduate research.  Or they can get involved in a registered student organization with an academic/intellectual orientation.  The undergraduate research option might be quite enriching for those students who do it, but how many do, particularly in the social sciences?  I suspect comparatively few.  And I suspect something quite similar for RSO activity that both inherently interests the student and promotes the students' intellectual growth.

In contrast, courses are universal and we think of them as the main place where students learn while in college.  Motivation is a key element in learning, for anyone, for me as an adult learner just as much as as for our students.  If inherently interested in a subject, an adult learner can then often teach himself, get expert help on as needed basis, but otherwise be self-directed.  One important goal of undergraduate education is to prepare students to be effective adult learners.  To the extent that we are relying exclusively on extrinsic rewards to motivate our undergraduates, course points and class grades, we will consistently fall short of this goal. 

Clickers are comparatively new technology.  But they are steeped in reward schemes that really are outdated.  It is true that the students who sit in the back of the lecture wouldn't engage without the clickers and some of them wouldn't come at all.  For that reason, I'm not saying to do away with the clickers.  I'm saying they are not sufficient.  Think of the students who sit in the front and would come to class even without the clickers.  What might we do to raise their inherent interest in the subject?  Some instructors may even have an answer to that question.  Are other instructors aware of those answers?  I, for one, am not.

In the previous decade I taught infrequently and when I did it was mostly for the Campus Honors Program.  Those students behave in a way that I'd like to see emulated by the students who sit in the front of the large lectures.  What can we do to achieve that as a goal?  That is the question we should be asking. 

No comments: