Press '2' for 'Not Guilty'


A six-week research project demonstrates the potential applications of personalresponse systems, including helping to settle a debate on the Lizzie Borden trial.

Hardware & SoftwareMARLENE OSBORN HAD never used a personal response system before her life science class took part in a study last fall at Kent State University's Research Center for Educational Technology. She and her Roberts Middle School seventh-graders from Cuyahoga Falls, OH, spent six weeks making use of the center's technology-enabled AT&T Classroom, which features clicker systems, videoconferencing and teleconferencing units, and interactive whiteboards. The project intended to measure the technology's impact onteaching and learning.

Although it was her first time with a personal response system, which is normally used to gauge student comprehension in the midst of a lesson, Osborn took the technology to a whole other territory: to elicit students' opinions on an issue they were studying. She used the systems during a videoconference with a Harvard University professor and two genetic scientists to gather answers to several questions regarding the legal and moral implications of stem cell research.

"It was amazing to get the responses that we did get from the students," Osborn says. "I think the students felt free to answer honestly because it was truly anonymous-I had no idea who had which clicker. It was a jump-start for some really good discussions."

Students are conscious of how well they fit in. They are swayedby what's going on. The [anonymity of the clickers] takes thattotally out of the picture.
- Marlene Osborn, Roberts Middle School

Personal response systems, or clickers, as they are known, have been around now for about a decade and are quickly becoming standard equipment in the 21st-century classroom. Their growing use in education coincides with their emergence in other areas. The 2006 World Congress used personal response systems to enable its 2,000-plus participants to cast votes on the issues at hand. American Idol is famous for allowing the audience to weigh in via a personal response system-the telephone-on which aspiring pop star should be heave-hoed. The most essential household appliance, the TV remote, is the original clicker, allowing the viewer to vote yay or nay on a given program.

The technology is lauded for enabling instructors to immediately discern through spot quizzes how well students are grasping concepts, or even whether they are paying attention, which ultimately can lead to propagating and reinforcing student involvement. A 2005 study, "Teaching With Student Response System Technology: A Survey of K-12 Teachers," by SRI International and a team of researchers from UCLA, University of California-Davis, and Santa Clara University, found that teachers are generally using clickers for both assessment and instruction, more so for summative assessment than formative assessment. In other words, instructors are using the devices more for determining whether students understood a whole lesson or unit than for adjusting their instruction in real time based on student responses.

But its use in the Kent State research project shows to what lengths the technology can be taken. If stem cell research makes for good clicker fodder, then how about the Lizzie Borden trial?


The systems are being put to unique use in one teacher's chemistry and biology classes.

Hardware & SoftwareConsider Joy Killough a clicker booster. "I've been using themfor about a year and a half, and I have enjoyed them from theget-go," says Killough, a science instructor at Westwood HighSchool in Round Rock, TX. After using the systems for awhile, she began to see other opportunities where shecould put them to work.

One such example occurred by accident. Killough's chemistry class was employing the clickers as part of an experiment in which they used probes to measure the pH levels of various water samples. The students input their measurements, and once the data was collected,

Killough saw from the graphs created by the readings that although the outcomes were correct, the values varied among the students. The immediate feedback "gave us the opportunity to talk about the variables in data collection," she says.

She is also using the clickers in her AP biology class, where one project involves measuring gene pool changes in subsequent generations. "The students have to gather data at each round, and I need to know where each student is [generation-wise], so each student clicks in their response." Killough thinks both she and her students are benefiting from her regular use of clickers in instruction. "The students uniformly love them. It helps them pay attention-they know now that first we have the lecture, and then questions will [be asked] related to what we've done in class, so they have to be paying attention.

"For me, it's so powerful to see when students have questions, and I can immediately go back and re-teach," she adds. "I'm able to go, ‘Gee, only 20 percent got that question right.' It allows me to pinpoint those particular kids and offer help."

In the Kent State project, Debi Bolls, an eighth-grade English instructor also from Roberts Middle School, had her class deconstruct the famous late-19th-century case surrounding the double ax-murder of Borden's father and stepmother. "[It's] an exercise that I started a couple of years ago, when the students were reading a play on the trial," Bolls says. "I thought it would be fun to discuss. I wanted the students to learn to read for details, and I tell them they are all lawyers, and lawyers have to support everything they say.

"This year with the response systems, we asked the students to take the information we had and tear it apart and find, based on that evidence, whether to go to trial. The students were split into two groups and had to argue why or why not, and vote using the response systems. We posted what we called ‘Points to Ponder,' which are the debated issues, and the kids had to vote on who won that section of the debate."

Bolls believes the clickers help draw students out, providing a kind of shelter from open verbal sparring, which can cause some kids to clam up. "A lot of students are afraid to express their opinions, but because [the systems are] anonymous, the only person who knows what the students answer is me. It encourages everyone to participate, and once they realize others have the same opinion, it gives them the opportunity to speak up." She says the clickers allow students "to become an active part of the experience."

Karen Swan, a professor at the research center, oversaw the project and says that both the stem cell exercise and the Lizzie Borden trial fit in well with the project's goal to measure whole-class engagement. "We first looked at two measures of engagement-observation and student selfreports," Swan says. "Over time, we discovered that students were more engaged using the clickers. That led us to think we might be on to something."

The center's current experimental study is measuring levels of learning using PowerPoint presentations and clicker systems, but "there are mixed results on whether the kids are actually learning," Swan says.

Although neither Bolls nor Osborn currently has personal response systems in her school, both see the value in usingthem, especially in the middle school environment.

"At the middle school level, students are conscious of how well they fit in," Osborn says. "They are swayed by what's going on. [The anonymity of the clickers] takes that totally out of the picture. Even the quiet ones can be heard."

Charlene O'Hanlon is a freelance writer based in New York.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.

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