3 easy ways to use clickers and Peer Instruction in the Arts and Humanities


On June 3, 2013 I sat in a room at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany at a Turning Technologies User Conference.  The room was quiet as we listened to Christopher Wiley, the Director of Undergraduate Studies at the City University London and expert in musicology, explain how an off the cuff decision to use classroom response systems (CRSs), in his case clickers, to learn how his students preferred receiving feedback on their papers radically changed the direction of his teaching practice. But that’s not why I was eager to hear his talk.

Dr. Wiley was in Karlsruhe to discuss how to use clickers effectively in the Arts and Humanities. This is one of the hottest questions among members of the Peer Instruction Network, who frequently wonder how to use Peer Instruction, which is often facilitated by clickers, outside of the sciences. As a high school history teacher, Michael from Texas, put it: “How is this strategy best executed in a humanities course, where content is less esoteric, problems are not so formula-based, and solutions are more subjective?”

While Wiley demonstrated how he uses clickers, rather than Peer Instruction, I think his approach is a terrific starting point for catalyzing collaborative and deeper learning in our non-science classrooms.  In this post, I explain Wiley’s method and then add tips for integrating it with Peer Instruction, and at the end, flipped classrooms.

#1: Use clicker questions to direct students’ attention to a key idea in a text, audio, or video clip.

To demonstrate this tip, Wiley played the below clip from Michael Jackson’s video, Black and White.

When I watched the video, I simply enjoyed the music, smiled and tapped my feet.  I didn’t process much about what I was seeing, other than noticing how young Macaulay Culkin looked.

Instead of turning to us and saying “so what did you notice?” and staring at a sea of blank faces, Wiley posed a series of clicker questions directing our attention to what he wanted us to focus on: The mixing of musical genres (rap and pop) and the importance of the geographical references in the video (New York).

#1 with Peer Instruction: Using Peer Instruction (PI) with this series of questions is easy, and you could do this with low-tech response systems such as ABCD flashcards or hand voting. Here’s how:

1) pose the question
2) ask students to commit to an answer using their devices
3) have them find a neighbor with a different answer
4) instruct them to discuss  their answer and why they responded the way they did
5) ask students to commit again to a response to the original question
6) come back together for a larger class discussion

By spending just three to four minutes with this kind of PI exercise, you ensure greater participation and interaction with the subject matter among all students in the class.  From a social learning theory perspective, you thus increase the chance that the key points will stick. Social interactions around content gives students practice for developing a stronger lexicon for oral and written critical analysis in your content area. It may also help them  get to know their peers better, potentially facilitating richer interactions around content in and outside of the classroom.

Try this kind of question with an image, such as a painting or a photograph, in addition to a text, audio, or video clip.

#2: Use clicker questions to engage students in discussion about a key point in an image, text, audio, or video clip that may have more than one valid answer.

POP Thing

For this tip, Wiley introduced an interesting question about the Spice Girls. He explained that each member of the group represents her own unique personality, indicated by their monikers – Scary Spice, Posh Spice, Sporty Spice, Baby Spice, and Ginger Spice.   He then asked a clicker question about when the girls are together – do they present individually or are they interchangeable? There is no right answer to this, it is a subjective question meant to drive discussion.

#2 with Peer Instruction: Again, this kind of question is a natural for PI and you can do it just as easily with low-tech response systems. Because there is no right answer, you can even show students the results of the first polling before you have them turn to their neighbors to discuss. After the second poll, have a few representatives who responded to each possible answer explain their choice and why they responded the way they did. The peer and large group discussion gives students constant practice with reasoning and argument, in addition to the important metacognitive experience of responding on their own to answer choices.

#3: Use clicker questions to introduce and and solicit views on contentious points.

For this tip, Wiley played a video clip of Jerry Springer the Opera, and then used a Turning Technologies software feature called Moment to Moment to engage us in the content. With Moment to Moment, which I believe is only available in the ResponseWare version of Turning Point, a live graph displays of student responses and how they change. The final graph then looks something like the image below.  Wiley used this tool to solicit audience reactions (how comfortable or uncomfortable we were during certain parts of the video on a scale of 1-4). If this were a live classroom, he could then solicit discussion about areas of interest on the graph – for example, why we all peaked in discomfort at a certain point in the clip.

Moment to Moment Graph

#3 with Peer Instruction: The same approach to using PI I explained with the other two tips above would work just as well with a contentious point question. You also don’t need the Moment to Moment graph, you could just use a regular histogram standard in any CRS software, and have students click 1-4 at certain points — in most platforms, the live shift in response will display visually. Having students discuss why they felt discomfort or did not during certain points of the clip with one another can further engage them in the key points you want them to learn. It may also expose them to diversity of view points and potentially solicit cognitive dissonance about the content.  However, I do not think this kind of question would work as well with the low-tech CRS, because of the lack of anonymity may have a stronger influence on a contentious question than a non-contentious one.

How could you flip your classroom using these tips?  Have students view the content (text, image, audio, video, etc) before class meets, and then run class using Peer Instruction. This approach would have the added bonus of saving a few minutes of class time real-estate.


Comments RSS
  1. Phd, Olivera Novitovic

    Peer Instruction helps students learn

    • Phd, Olivera Novitovic

      Knowledge is obtained not transferred

  2. Stella

    Audience response system has changed learning as well as teaching methods.

  3. GHoltam

    Reblogged this on Gemma Holtam and commented:
    Next month I am delivering a workshop on the use of clickers and have found this interesting article about the different ways that clickers can be used in the Arts and Humanities. It’s inspired me to use a video clip in my demonstration. Please let me know if you have any ideas for videos this. I am delivering to the Art and Design, Humanities and Engineering departments.

  4. Sue Palmer-Conn

    I’ve taken this one step further and developed a software programme that allows you to embed questions etc into a video which then can be answered using clickers. Works brilliantly. Get in touch if you want to trial it.

    • Julie McGovern

      I’d be curious about the software option, Sue. I teach 7th and 8th grade ELA.

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