University of Montana senior Carly Hagert carries her hand-held iClicker in her red backpack these days. The clicker sends an infrared signal that silently conveys and records her answers to questions asked by her professor of cellular and molecular biology. It's also used to instantly tally attendance in classes too large for a quick head count. "You're forced to go to class," Hagert says.
iClickers have been used to poll audience members on television game shows such as "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." Now they're transforming teacher-student interactions.
"To some extent all they're doing is automating what you could do 20 years ago, which is raise your hand if you don't understand," says UM Associate Provost Arlene Walker-Andrews.
iClickers first appeared in classrooms in the late 1990s. According to the manufacturer, nearly two million students nationally now use them at more than 1,000 institutions. The UM bookstore started selling iClickers in 2009. Since January, it's sold 2,500 of the lightweight, slender contraptions.
iClickers enable students to anonymously answer questions posed by professors. Only the teacher is privy to responses. Anonymity is a selling point. Everyone participates, not just a minority of students confident enough to raise their hands. "There are people that just don't want to ask questions in class, because they're shy," Walker-Andrews says. "There are people who just don't want to be humiliated, because they don't know the answer. This just provides that degree of anonymity."
Answers are broken down into a bar graph and displayed at the front of the classroom. UM accounting and finance professor Ron Premuroso says if too many students answer a question incorrectly, that's his cue to elaborate on the spot. "It just makes our jobs as teachers more efficient."
In Premuroso's accounting classes, participation counts for 15 percent of student grades. That provides extra incentive for students to stay engaged. "It keeps them awake, frankly," Premuroso says.
As for Hagert, she's not thrilled about being under increased pressure to attend class. But she begrudgingly acknowledges that the iClicker isn't all bad. "I don't know if (students) like it," she says. "But I think it's good for them."