Deja Vu All Over Again*: Clickers

Recently, I saw a math lesson where the teacher used “clickers,” devices that permitted students to answer a teacher question without waving their arms in the air. Here is what I saw.

Students worked on a problem in pairs or individually. Then the teacher passed out “clickers” so students could answer a multiple choice question appearing on an Interactive White Board (IWB) by voting whether A, B, C, or D answer was correct.

Students pointed at the IWB and clicked.

The teacher then tapped a button and the results of the entire class were displayed in pie charts so that the teacher and students saw what percentage of the class got or missed the concept embedded in the multiple-choice question.

Then, the teacher moved on (although she could have re-taught the concept if too many students erred).

Clickers are also used in college classrooms. Northwestern University Professor Bill White who teaches undergraduates “Organizational Behavior” uses the device.  Reactions from students to these instant voting devices vary, of course, but those responding to a journalist’s questions were positive. As one said: “I actually kind of like it. [Having clickers to register your opinion] make[s] you read. It makes you pay attention. It reinforces what you’re supposed to be doing as a student.”

The company that sells “clickers” (cost: $30 to $70 each) shipped over a million in 2010, half to colleges and universities and half to pre-collegiate schools (December 4, 2010 post)

Now I segue to an experience I had decades ago and occurred again recently.

In the late 1960s Stanford University administrators secured federal funds to build a multi-million dollar facility called the Stanford Center for Research, Development, and Teaching (SCRDT). A fully furnished television studio with “state-of-the-art” cameras, videotape recorders, and monitors occupied the main floor with the star-in-the-crown of the new building located in the Large-Group Instruction room (LGI).


The amphitheater-shaped room with half-circular rows looked down on a small stage with a lectern, a massive pull-down screen, and 2 large monitors suspended from the ceiling. At most of the individual seats was a small punch-button pad called the “student responder.” The responder contained the numbers 1-10 and letters T and F.

student responder

At the very top of the amphitheater was a glass-enclosed technician’s station where an aide could assist the professor with amplification of sound, simultaneous interpretation of various languages, show slides or films, and put on monitors data that the professors wanted.  Administrators had designed the room for professors to enhance the delivery of lectures.

For lectures, the student responder came into play. Designers created the pad for students to punch in their choices to communicate instantaneously to the lecturer their answers to the professor’s questions, such as “If you agree, press 1, disagree, press 2.” “If statement is true, press T.”  As students pressed the keypad, the data went directly to a mainframe computer where the students’ responses were immediately assembled and displayed for the professor at a console on the lectern. The lecturer was then able to adjust the pace and content of the lecture to this advanced interactive technology, circa 1970, that linked students to teacher.

By 1972 when I came to Stanford as a graduate student, the LGI was being used as a large lecture hall for classes from other departments. The now-disconnected keypads were toys that bored students played with during lectures. The pull-down screen was used for overheads and occasional films. The fixed position cameras purchased in the late 1960s were already beyond repair and obsolete.

In 1981, when I returned to teach at Stanford, the SCRDT had been renamed the Center for Educational Research at Stanford (CERAS). In the LGI, none of the original equipment or technology (except the sound system and simultaneous translation) was used by either students or professors. The student responders, however, were still there.

In 2012, nearly a half-century after the SCRDT installed the LGI, the amphitheater room is still in use as a regular lecture hall. I was in that room three weeks ago to hear a colleague talk about his career in education and, you guessed it, as I listened, my fingers crept over to the “student responder” and I began to click the keys. “Student responders” and “clickers” merged in my mind.

And that is where the deja vu all over again comes in.


*Attributed to Yogi Berra, Yankee baseball team catcher in the 1950s.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies, technology use

16 responses to “Deja Vu All Over Again*: Clickers

  1. Bob Calder

    I was told that the cost of a full setup in a classroom with 25 students amounts to about $250.00 a student. Is that wrong?

  2. Cal

    Ha, I saw that second picture and thought geez, that looks like the big lecture hall at CERAS.

    My cooperating teacher at STEP used the clickers. It usually took him an hour to create a quiz or a game, and he was very competent. Then you had to pass out the clickers, assigning one to each student. Then you have to give the students enough time to work each problem, and with low-skilled students that’s a looooong time. I often found kids signaling the answer to each other, too.

    If I were going to do this, I’d want it to be less centralized and less time dependent–and entirely network based. I’m planning on doing some hands on work with data collection with cell phones. I’m pretty sure I could easily set up a app that the kids could access and send me CSV files that I could load into Excel. Now, that would be something I’d like to see provided, rather than an expensive hardware system.

  3. Anita Hamilton

    Thank you for sharing this déjà vu experience. I use iClickers in one particular class where I teach students how to use a particular assessment tool. I like to use them as the students feel safe sharing what they think is correct using a clicker and when I show the graph (showing the spread of responses) I can ask for reasoning behind the students’ selections. I find that the students who got the answer wrong have really good reasoning, so our discussion can be quite in depth around their reasoning and the theory underpinning the assessment tool we are learning about and how we need to understand the rationale of the tool and we need to understand the terminology in order to achieve reasonable levels of inter-eater reliability when using the tool. It can’t merely be ‘their interpretation’ of the theory (as much as the students would prefer that!)
    As very few instructors in my department have adopted using clickers I borrow a class set of 100 clickers for this purpose. I didn’t feel that I could ask students to buy a clicker for one class.
    I know there are now online options to having a system set up in each classroom and clickers in each student’s hand. Smartphones and apps linked to an online program seem to be the future!

  4. I appreciate you taking the time to put educational technologies into historical perspective. It’s needed. I reference your posts whenever I can. Thank you. 🙂

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