Incorporating iClickers into Massive Lectures to Improve Comprehension and Engagement

Resource Title:
Active Learning - Dave Gerdes (Physics)
Course Type:
Faculty Name David Gerdes
Course Physics 240
  • Large Lecture Engagement
  • iClicker Comprehension checks
  • Pre-class problem sets


Try teaching physics to a group of 600 students at a time, very few of whom are going to continue on to be physics majors and the vast majority needing to complete the class in order to move on to work in other science fields. By changing the format of the class (dropping discussion sections, incorporating pre-lecture video and homework questions, engaging students in class using iClickers), David Gerdes has seen huge gains in engagement and learning even in such a large class.

Active Learning in the Course

The Physics Department was an early adopter of the iClicker technology, but it goes beyond responding to in-class questions for participation points. The course meets for four lectures every week, and students are encouraged to watch a video before the start of each unit (2 course meetings) and answer questions about the material presented. During each course meeting, the pre-lecture questions (including answer distribution and why/how certain answers are incorrect) are discussed, as well as building onto that material. Students are encouraged to discuss solutions with each other multiple times throughout the lecture, reinforcing the concepts and allowing the thinking behind the solutions to be shared.

Challenges and Solutions

Gerdes found that students had a some anxiety about how the iClicker questions (and by extension, attendance at four course meetings per week) would impact their grade. This semester, students’ baseline grades are entirely composed of their exam grades, but they can continually earn extra credit to offset those grades by coming to lecture and successfully completing the iClicker questions. This allows students to manage their own attendance and work actively to offset (or not) their exam performance.

Changes in Instruction

In a traditional lecture format without iClickers, the students AND the professor can over-estimate the students’ level of understanding. The iClicker questions give the professor a chance to engage the students in real-time; challenging their understanding, seeing patterns in their misconceptions, and adjusting his instruction on the fly. Gerdes feels more satisfied after each lecture because he has hard data to support his understanding that the students are learning and processing the material. If they are not, he can take concrete steps to address their weak points.

Benefits for Students

Because students are taking Physics 240 (generally speaking) near the beginning of their college careers, the flexible structure of the class allows students to participate to the extent that they feel is helpful, rather than feeling forced to show up and answer iClicker questions simply for attendance reasons. The range of abilities, experience, and motivation in a 600-person class is expansive, and this active learning technique makes the students responsible for building the educational experience that best supports them.

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