Using Student Clickers to Foster In-Class Debate

Integrating technology with appropriate teaching strategies can help stimulate participation and create a student-centered atmosphere conducive to learning. One technology shown particularly successful in boosting student engagement is clickers (Martyn, 2007). In fact, a research study found that student test scores were significantly higher when clickers were used as part of an in-class lecture as compared to a different section of the same class that didn’t use clickers (Mayer, Stull, DeLeeuw, Ameroth, Bimber, Chun, et al. 2009).

The purpose of this article is to explain how a relatively new technology, like clickers, can be paired with an age-old teaching technique, like in-class debates, to help students develop a deeper understanding of course material and achieve higher exam scores.

Pairing clickers with debate
Our baccalaureate senior level adult health courses meet twice weekly after 18-hours spent in clinical rotations. Each class session lasts two hours and fifty minutes. By the second class, instructors noticed that students were minimally engaged in the discussions. In an effort to enhance student engagement, we began using clickers to promote student debate with a goal of facilitating learning through questioning, critical reflection and discussion.

Here’s how it works. The typical class always begins with an overview of the student learning outcomes for that class session. It was within that context that we introduced students to the clicker/debate strategy, including the rules of behaviors. The primary rule is respect, which we define as a group to include things such as not interrupting others when they are speaking, refraining from side conversations, using professional voice and body language at all times, maintaining appropriate tone of voice, and keeping responses to two minutes or less. For the purpose of building self-confidence and enhancing communication skills, the students are encouraged to stand while speaking, however standing was not required.

Once the class agrees to the rules, the instructor begins the lesson with a PowerPoint guided lecture. Within the first 10-15 minutes, the first debate question is presented. The question stem is displayed for all to view and students are instructed to silently consider all possible and plausible answers. The instructor chooses one student from anyone willing to answer the questions with a rationale. Then any student with a differing view is invited to offer their answer and rationale, and why they believe the opposing student’s response was fallible. To help facilitate critical thinking, the instructor asks follow-up questions to deepen understanding. This debate portion of the class lasts one-to-three minutes depending on the complexity of the topic being discussed.

Once the debate period closes, four possible answers are displayed and the class uses their clickers to anonymously select what they believed to be the correct option. When all responses are tabulated, a bar graph of the collective responses is displayed for everyone to view and discuss further. The student debater who had the correct answer receives a small prize, such as a full-size candy bar, while the opposing student receives a consolation type prize, such as a pencil or a kid’s toy typically found in a fast food meal. If neither were correct the entire class gets a mini-size candy bar. We found that this little incentive helps motivate students to participate, and makes the experience fun for everyone.

Reaction from faculty and students
Nurse educators have a responsibility to ensure students acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to transition from student to nurse successfully. Classroom experiences set the tone for learning in the clinical setting; therefore, lesson plans should be inclusive of strategies that not only focus on disease management but other essential skill-sets such as effective communication, conflict resolution, and a healthy self-confidence. One way to accomplish this is by incorporating clicker questions, complemented by student debate in the classroom.

Faculty found this teaching strategy to be student-centered, while students reported the class to be fun, engaging, and helpful with retention of material. More importantly, the strategy resulted in positive student learning outcomes. Prior to implementing this approach, the average class score on the unit exam was 82%. The average score on the same unit of study with similar class demographics moved to 87% and was consistent over the next two semesters. This upward trajectory of scores suggests a positive correlation between the teaching strategy described and student learning outcomes.

Leslee Shepard, EdD, RN, CMSRN is an associate professor of nursing at Winston Salem State University.

Martyn, M. (2007). Clickers in the classroom: An Active Learning approach. EDUCAUSE Quarterly, 30(2), 71-74.

Mayer, R., Stull, A., DeLeeuw, K., Almeroth, K., Bimber, B., Chun, D., Bulger, M., Campbell, J., Knight, A., & Zhang, H. (2009). Clickers in college classrooms: Fostering learning with questioning methods in large lecture classes. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 34(1), 51-57.