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In Class, the Audience Weighs In

The New York Times

PAUL CARON, a law professor at the University of Cincinnati, uses them to break through what he calls the "cone of silence" in his classroom. For Wendy Tietz, who teaches accounting at Kent State, they are a way to encourage teamwork and give credit for class participation. Melissa Wilde, a sociology professor at Indiana University, says they help her students feel a connection to the subject.

For these and other professors across the nation, the newest aid in the classroom is a small wireless keypad, linked to a computer. Students answer questions not by raising their hands but by punching buttons, with the results appearing on a screen in the front of the room.

Although some skeptics dismiss the devices as novelties more suited to a TV game show than a lecture hall, educators who use them say their classrooms come alive as never before. Shy students have no choice but to participate, the instructors say, and the know-it-alls lose their monopoly on the classroom dialogue.

Professor Wilde has her students answer multiple-choice questions to gauge whether she is getting her point across and adjusts her lectures accordingly. "I can instantly see that three-quarters of the class doesn't get it," she said.

Perhaps more profoundly, however, she uses the devices to turn the 400-student class into a sociological laboratory.

At the beginning of this semester, she had the class use the clickers to answer several basic questions about themselves, including their race, household income and political affiliation. Thanks to the clicker technology, she could collate the data immediately. At the next class, she posted the results, which showed that, compared with the average for the nation, the class had three times as many wealthy students and one-fifth as many poor students.

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