Clickers Making a Difference in the Classrooms Thanks to One of Yale’s Own

WNPR ran a week-long series called “Where We Live: Improving STEM Education”  One piece entitled “Improving STEM Education in College – Many College Students Leave the Sciences. Why?” describes ways educators are trying to keep college students motivated in the sciences and highlights using clickers as a way to engage the students.  Yale MCDB professor and clicker proponent, Jo Handelsman, is interviewed.  Here is an except from the transcript (click the link above to listen to the segment):

Science is a popular subject at the University of Connecticut. But many students
describe their experience in a similar way as Gomez – slog through the boring introductory lecture courses and eventually you’ll be rewarded with more fun activities like involved experiments. Yale professor Jo Handelsman thinks it shouldn’t be that way, and that teaching methods are largely to blame.

“We’re really misrepresenting science in our introductory courses and turning people off to it because they think it’s something that it’s not,” said Handelsman. “A lot of rote memorization, a lot of information and content, and not conceptual thinking, and not a lot of scientific thinking.”

Handelsman recently founded the Yale Center for Scientific Teaching. The center trains graduate students on better methods for teaching science, and it also hosts a summer institute for professor and lecturers every year. Xinnian Chen, an assistant professor-in-residence at UConn, attended the institute recently and has since completely changed the way she approaches teaching.

“I noticed that to be a good teacher you will have to think about the way students learn,” said Chen.

But that wasn’t Chen’s focus before she attended the summer institute. She was only concerned that her lectures were easy to understand and students thought the exams were fair. Now, she’s focusing on whether her lectures actually motivate students to care about the subject. In order to engage them during lecture, she gave students clickers they can all use to answer a question she might pose during lecture. In an eight a.m. class with 300 students it’s made a world of difference.

“They told me in my evaluation that those activators keep them awake, they really like them,” said Chen.

Chen also asks students to answer questions on their own in small groups – another technique she learned from the Yale Center for Scientific Teaching. Stacey MacGrath is a Ph.D. student at Yale who participates in the center.

“There’s data out there showing that if you poll a group of students, even if the entire class gets the answer wrong, if you let them discuss amongst themselves, they’ll eventually get the answer right even without any kind of outside input,” said Chen.