Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

"Clickers", success, and why do I feel dirty?

Apart from starting the hassle map exercise my last lesson in 10 Mathematics also included my first use of the Active Expression “student learner learner response system”. While a bit disorganised, I can see some benefits. But I still feel a bit dirty.

What are they?

The following photo gives you an idea of what the he ActivExpression “clickers” look like. Basically an oversized calculator with a mobile phone-like keyboard, some extra buttons, and a small LCD screen. It goes with a little dongle that plugs into the back of a (usually teacher) computer to receive the student responses and that works with the Promethean Interactive WhiteBoard (IWB) software.



Mainly because they are there. The classroom I teach in has an IWB and a computer and there are 30-odd of these devices laying around not being used. But also because they might provide some additional insight into how the students are progressing. Then there is the observation that being on my internship with a mentor teacher hanging around is probably the best chance I have to do some experimentation, at least experimentation that sticks within the “grammar of school”.

The final reason was that this was the last lesson on a Friday afternoon for these students. A lesson that typically doesn’t find them focusing much on the mathematics. Playing with some toys might generate some interest.


The plan was to spent 15/20 minutes getting the students using the devices to answer a couple of stand alone questions (quick polls) and then do a self-paced test.

There was probably a good 10 minutes spent getting the devices set up and ready. And about the same spent doing the questions.

Most of the students seemed to handle the devices okay. Their use generated some engagement/interest out of some students who are generally more disengaged. No real learning about mathematics happened, but they became familiar with the devices so the next time might be a bit easier.


I’m a bit conflicted about the experience.

On the positive side it engaged the students and could provide some useful insights into just how well the students are “getting” the mathematics I’m trying to teach them.

Of course, the very words I’m using in that paragraph reveal some of the drawbacks. The use on Friday was very traditional. It assumes it’s my job to teach, there’s to learn and the clickers are there to check how well the transaction occurred. I’m using tech to improve the existing processes. Evolution, not revolution.

That’s the bit I feel dirty about.

I like the quote from Martin Davis used by Lasry (2008) when comparing clickers and flash cards

As men get older, the toys get more expensive.

But given that the expense has already been spent, I may as well use it. And this is but a stepping stone.

What’s next?

I’ve been aware of Mazur’s work on peer instruction for awhile as one approach to effectively using clickers, without really knowing the details. A possible way forward would be to modify the class approach to use peer instruction.

Only now do I realise that one of the assumptions about peer instruction is that it is associated with the “flipped” classroom. i.e. students are expected to do some pre-reading. I can probably modify this a bit, though I should read some more about peer instruction.

I am interested by the possibility of whether or not peer instruction would address some of the issues students have with the boring nature of the class (as revealed in the hassle map results). I wonder if regularly pausing to talk with a peer would be counted as a “fun activity”.

Associated with this, I also wonder how engaging the clickers would be for the students if all we did for them was answer the standard mathematics questions. Might the novelty wear off?

In the shorter-term, I need to analyse some of the results from Friday’s experience. The Promethean software records student responses. Some of the value of the clickers is the ability to become aware of student progress.


Lasry, N. (2008). Clickers or Flashcards: Is There Really a Difference? The Physics Teacher, 46(4), 242. doi:10.1119/1.2895678


Results of the Year 10 math hassle map


What arrogance! What an insult to the rich and chaotic variety of the human experience


  1. I feel the same way as you about clickers – why don’t they just put their hand up??

    However, maybe they could be useful if the information was used by the student, not the teacher? Add a ‘gaming’ overlay, where they have to beat their ‘personal best’ etc, or reach ‘levels’ and then you may have some motivation?

    • Actually the Lasry paper addresses exactly this. It finds no learning difference between the manual (flashcards) and the technology (clickers). Instead all the difference is on the teaching side…easier to organise.

      In this class, there’s a collection of students that are in the habit of not contributing. With only one use, the clickers do seem to generate some interest and levels of participation that might not arise from raising hands.

      Will see what happens over the next week or so.

  2. I enjoyed your post David. I don’t know anything about K-12 education but I find the use of clickers (I shall continue calling them that because it annoys the edtechies) in HE concerning. Like lecture capture it is a technology that will generally be used to maintain the status quo. I’d rather we invested in something else rather than turn subject matter experts into game show hosts.

    • I agree. Clickers tend to reinforce the status quo. Perhaps the biggest frustration of being a student teaching on a 6 week internship is that you really can’t upset the status quo all that much. It’s not your class, you have to work within the history of the class and how its run and tinker at the edges. But clickers do help enhance the status quo somewhat, or at least offer the opportunity. Lesson 2 with them complete and there is some improvement.

      On the question of status quo in higher education, one of the problems is that so much of the grammar of higher education is set toward the status quo. Time-tabling, workload allocation, pay scales, buildings, rooms etc are so lecture/tutorial focused there isn’t perhaps much room to challenge it. I know this was a problem at CQU as far back as 1996. I’m not sure anyone is addressing it yet.

      Perhaps it’s that constraint that is encouraging clickers and lecture capture in higher ed. It’s too hard to change the broken status quo in terms of big expensive buildings and industrial relations. Perhaps, it’s easier to get technology that enhances it a bit and covers over some of the cracks while pandering to the expectations of students and staff?

  3. Associated with this, I also wonder how engaging the clickers would be for the students if all we did for them was answer the standard mathematics questions. Might the novelty wear off?

    What they should allow is tightening the feedback loop, so that they can see their results immediately and see how they are tracking compared to the rest of the class – a cross between a teacher-led Q&A session and a maths quiz. That’s still in the evolution rather than revolution camp, but it is an evolution that is simply not possible using traditional means.

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