Cindy Simmons, senior lecturer, Penn State College of Communications and Affiliate Law Faculty
General Overview of Course or Courses
Simmons used clickers in two sections of Comm 403 Mass Media Law during spring 2012. The course covers the legal aspects of practicing journalism, including subjects such as the First Amendment, copyright, privacy, and libel law. It is an important course for journalism students, as basic understanding of communication can keep them out of trouble.
“A student can bankrupt their company in the first week if they make a big mistake with libel law,” Simmons said. “So, I needed the students to be motivated to learn communications law and to learn it deeply. It’s not intuitive. It’s not logical. There’s a lot of memorization.”
How Clickers Were Used in Class
To make sure students were understanding key points and course concepts, Simmons asks questions via clickers. In the past, she noted, it might not be clear until a quiz or test that students were not understanding material she was covering. “You know, from the students’ perspective they were getting questions that might be on the exam,” she said. “But from my perspective, I got very quick information on what percent of the class actually understood the material so I could move on.”
Simmons said that she asks a lot of clicker questions. Clickers are part of the students class participation grade. She also uses the clickers for class quizzes.
Along with questions related to the course, Simmons uses clickers to “take the temperature of the room.” She asks if the students are bored, or even to find out if individual students are being called on enough during class. She said this was helpful in a fairly large-enrollment class where there are 50-100 students. “I was able to find those students who wanted me to call on them more often,” she said. “And they were not necessarily the students I would’ve guessed wanted to be called on more often. So, that was useful information.”
Perhaps the most interesting use of clickers in Simmons’ classes involved the courses’ moot courts. The students not playing attorneys and not playing justices could rate the performance of their classmates in real time. During the court, questions were flashed such as “do you agree with their interpretation of this case?” and “how are they doing right now?”. She said she was a bit apprehensive about having the clickers because she feared students would be intimidated about being rated by their peers, but she said it didn’t seem to phase them. She also noted that the students were fair, and that it helped get the students not participating in the moot court more involved.
Outcomes and Benefits
Simmons said that the ability to get instant feedback was a key benefit of clickers. “From my perspective I got very quick information on what percent of the class actually understood the material so I could move on,” she said.
Since students are very comfortable with technology given it’s an integral part of their lives, she believes clickers are a great help with engaging students. She notes the students perk up when a question comes on the screen. To her, engaging students early in a course is important, and can be critical to a student’s success in the course. An unengaged student is not learning because they are not paying attention. Clickers, she notes, forces them to take notice, and it’s also enjoyable for many students.
Clickers also increase participation, Simmons found, particularly among students who may be anxious or shy. “Clickers are more inclusive and they allow students to know when they had it wrong in a way that didn’t require them to raise their hand in a large group and be wrong,” she said.
They even help relieve anxiety levels going into exams, as she can ask clicker questions that will be on the test. This enables her to find out how many in her class are not understanding the material, so she can work with them to better grasp course concepts.
“The course objective is for them to have a working knowledge of a very large body of legal information and precedence,” Simmons said. “By asking clicker questions I can let them know early on what will be on the tests, and how they are doing. This allows them to adjust their studying.”
Finally, clickers even allowed Simmons to improve student attendance. “On clicker quiz days, they all or mostly showed up. Sometimes, you’ll have like twenty percent not attending on any given day in a class that large,” she said. “But they all showed up on the clicker quiz days or at least a very significant number did.”
Potential Uses in Other Courses
While some of her clicker uses like the moot court were specific to her own course, Simmons said that there were several uses of the clicker that any faculty member could find useful.
Engaging all students, including the shy and nervous ones, was something she believed any faculty member could find relevant as a reason to use clickers. “You get input from students who are not ‘hand raisers.’ And so you teach the whole group,” Simmons said. “Because you know they’re all paying tuition. You have to teach all of them.”
Clickers also help underachieving students because you can not only ask if they are understanding the material, you can often find out why. Simmons noted that if you ask, for example, if students read an assignment, you can identify the students who are not trying, who may have given up for whatever reason. She said she asked students in mid-term how the class was going, and used this information to make adjustments. For example, she could find out if the students were bored with the material. This was also something she could envision any faculty member doing.
Ultimately, Simmons concluded, clickers give faculty a window into the course that one would not have had otherwise. For example, she noted it can be difficult to figure out early in the semester if a student just is not trying and wants out of the class, or if he or she wants to succeed but is having a hard time getting an initial grasp of the material.
Future Use Plans
She plans on using clickers for the journalism writing courses she teaches. One example she gave was finding out who has difficulty with a key skill journalists need to be successful–talking to strangers–and working with them to overcome these issues.