Tristan Maheux looks excited when he bounds into class after recess and sees what is on his desk.
“Oh good, a quiz,” the nine-year-old says.
He picks up a wireless hand-held device known as a clicker, enters his identification number and looks to the large screen at the front of the room. Eight multiple choice or true-or-false questions start to appear, one at a time.
Tristan and his Grade 4 classmates press buttons on their clickers to choose their answers as specialized software tabulates the results for their teacher, Nathalie Roy. She has been using clickers in her classroom for two years, for quick quizzes or to ask the children a question in the middle of a lesson to see if they are following.
“If everyone gets it right, I know I can move on,” says Ms. Roy, who works at St. Isidore Catholic School in Ottawa.
Clickers were first adopted by university professors teaching large classes with hundreds of students, but now a growing number of elementary and high- school teachers across North America are introducing them as part of the push toward using technology to engage students. Canadian researchers have now started to look at ways to help teachers use clickers more effectively.
The growing popularity of the devices is linked to the increased use of whiteboards in classrooms, the high-tech, interactive version of the traditional blackboard. Many companies that produce whiteboards also make various kinds of clickers. In 2011, 5.7 million individual clickers were sold worldwide, 85 per cent of them in the United States, more than half for kindergarten to Grade 12 classes, says Laurie Long, a spokesman for Calgary-based SMART Technologies.
His company is the leading provider of clickers to elementary and high schools, he says, and made the clickers in Ms. Roy’s classroom , which cost about $75 each, including a receiver and the software.
Ms. Roy says doing instant mini-quizzes helps her track when the students aren’t grasping a concept – it’s an instant flag that she should go over the material again, or find another way to explain it. After class, Ms. Roy reviews the data, to see who is having trouble and may need extra help.
She says the devices also make it easier for shy students to participate and takes the pressure off students who only like to answer a question in class if they are sure they will get it right. Clickers also help students who have difficulty writing.
Researchers are working on ways to help teachers get more out of clickers.
At the University of British Columbia, Marina Milner-Bolotin and her colleagues are putting together a database of clicker questions for the science and math curriculums in the province. A clever question will allow teachers to see if students hold common misconceptions or are making a common error, says Dr. Milner-Bolotin.
When the database is finished, Dr. Milner-Bolotin says teachers will be able to rate the questions and add their own, if they wish.
There are, of course, more low-tech options, like answering a math question on a piece of paper on the way out the door after class, or asking students to write their answers on cardboard cards and hold them up.
But clickers give precise feedback in real time, says Nathaniel Lasry, a teacher at John Abbott College in Montreal.
Dr. Lasry, who is also an education researcher, says clickers help teachers read the room, since usually only a handful of students nod or offer other signs that they are following a lesson. He and his colleagues are working on a system that will allow students to use their smartphones as clickers. The students frequently text each other during class, he says, so it makes sense to have them use the wireless devices in ways that will help them focus their attention.
The students in Ms. Roy’s class seem to enjoy taking the quiz, going over the answers and viewing the pie charts that show them how well the class performed on each question.
Tristan says it was fun. The girl who sits beside him, Sydney D’Angelo, enjoyed it as well.
“I like quizzes, but I like these quizzes the best,” she says.