Using clickers to trace change of attitudes amongst Engineering students

Context: 60 ECP Engineering students in a Conversation class.

Rationale: In her conversation class Marie-Ann Ogle covers a range of controversial topics with the intent of improving students confidence to speak in front of others. Many of these topics deal with diversity and moral dilemmas, such as interracial relationships, rights of homosexual persons, cheating, the potential of a woman president for SA, interference of democracy on culture, compulsory HIV/AIDS tests at University, racism in SA or freedom of religious choice to name a few of the topics on this year’s lists. The main underlying principle in these conversation classes is respect. From the beginning the lecturers stresses the importance of paying respect to individual’s opinions and interferes strongly when she feels students do not respect each other. Furthermore the challenge lies in making students start to think outside their own backgrounds.

These discussions get very heated. However, the dominant opinion is often much louder than possible minority opinions. Clickers were used in this class to allow all students to participate and share their opinion, although anonymously. Furthermore we were interested in assessing whether students changed their opinions during the course of the conversation class.

Process: The session described for this example dealt with issues of homosexuality. A number of controversial questions were asked at the beginning of the class and again at the end of the class, after ample discussion. Students voted individually and after each question the class was given time to discuss results. The lecturer tried to elicit comments from both the dominant and the minority opinion groups, however it is far more difficult to solicit comments from the later group. The session lasted about 1 hour 30 mins.

Educational Impact: The anonymity of clickers allows even minority opinions to be heard. Students’ feedback shows that they enjoy seeing a picture of how the whole class thinks about a topic. However, clicker questions can take away from open discussion, when not handled properly. Students seem to be satisfied with a quick result, shying away from more in-depth discussions. Although we are aware that opinion change over time and cannot be effected in one conversation class, clickers revealed slight movements in students’ opinions (see presentation below).

Marie-Ann’s feedback:

“I really enjoyed the clicker session. One student commented afterwards that he felt, that this was a personal class. Clickers’ big advantage is that each student gets involved and their vote count  – even if they didn’t get a chance to talk. Students enjoyed seeing the results – as did I. I also enjoyed the fact that questions could be added in when they came up – this gave an indication of immediate students’ opinion. I was always worried that clickers would disturb the flow of a discussion and that problem still remains with a slightly revised perspective. It depends how long the class is to allow time for discussion – when discussions get heated and involved, we need time to slow down as the main function is to allow time for everyone to talk. This would indicate to limit the number of questions if the subject is very controversial. However, I do think that short-term measurement is merely for immediate gratification – regarding changes of opinion, these are long-term and must be measured again at the end of the programme.”

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About D Gachago

I have been working in the field of eLearning for more than 10 years, in commercial companies and in Higher Education, in Austria, Botswana, Scotland and now South Africa. I am still enthusiastic about all the interesting stuff that's going on and am trying desperately to keep on top of all the new technology coming out (not always managing very well).
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