Book by Derek Bruff
Review by Mark Rohland
Academic Advisor, College of Liberal Arts
Temple University

Good teachers constantly look for ways to improve instruction. Bruff, Assistant Director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, surveys how classroom response systems, commonly known as “clicker technology,” can improve teaching and learning. He argues that using clickers to aggregate and display students’ answers to pertinent questions motivates them to learn and also improves teaching, particularly by helping teachers respond quickly to student needs. 

Bruff considers the benefits of classroom clicking for student engagement. Using examples offered by teachers across disciplines, he shows that posing questions that students answer with clickers facilitates thinking and response among students who might not otherwise participate. Strategic revelation of aggregated answers stimulates further participation. Response systems also promote peer interaction and instruction. One teacher asks content questions that groups strive to answer correctly. Since students answer individually but get more credit if their group has more correct answers, students are motivated to deepen understanding and teach each other (p. 18). Students find the use of clickers less inhibiting than other forms of participation, partly because clicker responses can be made anonymously. Student engagement benefits from the speed with which results are tallied, leading to more, and more effective, coverage of course material.

Response systems also facilitate effective student assessment. Teachers using the systems can see the results of their questioning quickly, probe students’ correct and incorrect reasoning, and if necessary adapt lessons accordingly. Bruff stresses the value of response systems for such “agile teaching” (p. 3). This mode of formative assessment reveals student thought processes, allows responses to and from more students, and enables prompt feedback that students appreciate. Bruff describes a science teacher who can, if clickers reveal many wrong answers, spend more time “diagnosing his students’ misconceptions, working through some examples, or asking a follow-up clicker question to identify particular misconceptions” (p. 41). Bruff does not focus on evidence that agile teaching leads to learning gains, but he does point readers to ample research literature. 

Bruff supplements his points on engagement and assessment with a classified array of clicker questions for a variety of teaching contexts. He also provides helpful advice on teaching choices with response systems: when to grade clicker questions, how to use them for summative assessment, and how to address cheating and lack of participation. He provides addition helpful suggestions on dealing with logistical issues such as system choice and troubleshooting. Throughout, the reader benefits from the copious examples gleaned from teachers. However many of these illustrate the same fundamental points about engagement and assessment, which at times the redundancy is distracting.

Although Bruff’s survey is aimed at college teachers, professional advisors can gain from its insights. Advisors will find uses of response systems they can transfer to group advising, such as getting student feedback about satisfaction with majors, confidence in understanding curriculum, and perceived need for advising. The anonymity of clicker responses could yield honest and fine-grained data about a group’s attitudes and knowledge that could support more nuanced advising. 

This book convincingly demonstrates that clicker technology allows teachers and students to adapt quickly to emerging learning needs. Using the systems may take less adventurous instructors out of their comfort zones, but in disciplines routinely taught through lecture and drill with little formative assessment, experimenting with the systems may bring salutary classroom changes. Bruff’s work is an enthusiastic, accessible, and detailed introduction for all educators interested in this popular educational technology tool.

Teaching With Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments. (2009). Book by Derek Bruff. Review by Mark Rohland. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 240 pp. $35.00. ISBN 978-0-470-28893-1
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