Adventures with Clickers in Veterinary Medical Education

Laura Molgaard
Deb Wingert 
Al Beitz
Dave Brown

The Journey
The University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine (UMN CVM) has been on a journey with wireless response systems (also known as personal response systems, classroom response systems, or “clickers”, but for this chapter referred to as WRS) for much of the last ten years.  Our initial interest in adopting a WRS was to provide an easy to use method of promoting active learning in the classroom.  After initial research, we were also excited about a simple method to take class attendance in courses for which that was appropriate.  We also aimed to provide a venue for students to provide their opinions on sensitive topics (e.g.  ethical dilemmas).  We wanted to engage all learners in discussions rather than just the extroverts.  

Phase I: The journey begins (circa 2003)

The context of this adventure is a professional program (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine or DVM) in which students move together in a cohort through a rigorous four-year program, which has been preceded by approximately four years of undergraduate pre-veterinary coursework.  Most of the DVM curriculum in the first three years is required coursework in which all students are enrolled.  Students sit together in the same lecture hall for much of every day.

This paradigm seemed like a natural fit for the purchase of a WRS.  Receivers were mounted in the front of each of the main lecture halls.  Students were required to purchase a WRS remote that was registered to the individual student.  These were low-cost and were provided through the UMN CVM bookstore.  Faculty at the UMN CVM range from basic scientists with a traditional tripartite faculty mission to clinical scientists with a very heavy clinical responsibility and more limited time to teach in the classroom.  

Faculty members were offered training and technical support on use of the WRS, including pedagogical approaches for using in-class multiple choice questions.  In the initial years using a WRS, the infrared system we chose had several technical challenges that discouraged faculty and frustrated students.  For those reasons, utilization of the WRS was fairly limited, which added to the students’ frustration because they were required to purchase a remote unit.  After a few years, the WRS fell into disuse and was abandoned.

Phase II: Widespread adoption (circa 2008)

In 2008 a faculty member at the College brought back exciting news that he had been to a national scientific conference and had experienced the use of a newer radiofrequency WRS system (iClicker) and he wanted to purchase a base unit.  After further exploration it appeared that advances in technology had significantly lowered the learning curve for faculty and that the student remotes were also quite reliable.  We worked with representatives from the company as well as faculty from neighboring colleges who had already experienced using iClickers.  Though previous experience caused some trepidation about going down this path again, there was also significant interest to see if the time was now right to try once more.  He piloted this WRS in one of his first year courses and had a very positive experience, including a positive response from students.  This success created an interest and willingness in other faculty members who taught in the first year curriculum to experiment with this technology.  Over the intervening four years, more and more faculty members have adopted the use of iClickers and this WRS, now in its second version, is widely used throughout the DVM curriculum.

Our students certainly enjoy the active learning component that a WRS facilitates.  They report that they appreciate an opportunity to check their knowledge. Faculty have used the iClicker to enhance student learning in a myriad of ways such as: individual and group questions during class sessions, laboratory reviews, formative course evaluations, student presentations, self assessments (knowledge checks), checking student understanding of previous class sessions, and case-based problem learning.

One of the greatest benefits they perceive is that faculty can easily incorporate small quizzes into their course grading scheme by using a WRS to quickly collect data and assign a score for each student.   This is popular because it allows faculty to easily spread out the points into smaller “chunks” rather than relying on a very few large exams to assess student knowledge. The ease of using iClickers attracts faculty to try this technology in their teaching and learning settings. Although we have a brief online training link available to all faculty, many have picked up the basics within a few minutes from another colleague already using the system. Faculty and instructional staff using clickers represent diverse areas of the curriculum including, but not limited to: Pharmacology, Toxicology, Pathology, Veterinary Imaging, Nutrition, Behavior Core, Professional Development, Virology, Critical Scientific Reading,  Physiology, Clinical Skills, Epidemiology, Parasitology, Organology, Neurobiology, Radiology, Histology, and Anatomy.

WRS Benefits
Ingredients for WRS Success
  • Increased student engagement
  • Diverse ways to easily check student understanding (self-checks, quizzes, case studies)
  • Increased faculty interest in active learning
  • Ease of use in large and small educational settings, including classrooms, labs, and clinics.
  • Ease of use in diverse content areas
  • Increased faculty collegiality in teaching and learning
  • Leadership support
  • Faculty champion
  • Affordability
  • Easy learning curve for faculty application
  • Stability/reliability of WRS device
  • Ongoing informal faculty conversations as well as seminars to review teaching and learning strategies/applications etc.

Moreover, we find that iClickers alter classroom dynamics, engaging all 100 veterinary students in large classrooms with the power of mass feedback. Clickers ease fears of giving a wrong answer in front of peers, or of expressing unpopular opinions. Importantly for the instructor, one can get an instantaneous graph of the student responses to a particular question and gauge in real time whether the students are grasping important concepts or comprehending difficult material presented in class. On the other hand use of clickers also compels professors to think about their lesson plans differently and seek to share their challenges and accomplishments with each other, increasing faculty collegiality.  We find the use of clickers to be a win/win situation.

Lessons Learned
This has been a very interesting journey and one from which we have learned a lot.  Why was the first foray into use of a WRS a disappointment and the most recent experience so successful?  One reason is certainly the stability and ease of use of technology.  Very busy faculty need a tool that they can easily learn and that can be integrated into their teaching in a straightforward manner.  In the first experiment, although initial faculty interest motivated the purchase and installation of the system, many faculty didn’t actually attempt to use the system.

Some early adopters made a valiant effort to incorporate the system into their teaching but the barriers mentioned earlier proved to be insurmountable.  In addition, the original WRS system we used was an infrared-based system which suffers from a number of problems including the requirement for an unobstructed line-of-sight communication between transmitter and receiver within a specified viewing angle.  On the other hand, purchase of the subsequent radiofrequency iClicker system was done by a very motivated faculty champion, who took the time to fully understand the system.  He then made himself available for 1:1 training of other faculty.  Word of mouth was the primary and most effective method of spreading the word about the utility and ease of use of iClickers.  Once student buy-in reached a critical mass, student requests for this WRS motivated other faculty to adopt the WRS.

One of the other factors that set us up for success in our second WRS endeavor was that we had implemented a major shift in faculty development of teaching in the two to three years preceding the purchase of iClickers.  We implemented a weekly faculty development seminar series with both formal presentations and informal conversations that provided faculty with an awareness of what others were doing in education and a renewed sense of value of education.  Active learning gained more and more popularity over those years and primed the faculty to have a need for and to utilize a tool that facilitated active learning.  It is also possible that an article in Science magazine on the use of a WRS, which was published roughly around the time of the second phase of WRS adoption, motivated some faculty to consider utilizing iClickers in their teaching.

Faculty at the UMN CVM rarely have teaching assistants or other support for teaching and need to be very self-sufficient.  Until very recently we didn’t have any dedicated technology support for teaching either.  This scarcity of direct support has been counterbalanced with a strong collegiate and departmental leadership support for innovative teaching techniques and adoption of novel tools.  The modest cost of WRS systems has also been essential for early experimentation and later successful adoption.

Our experiences on the WRS journey have been informative in other educational endeavors as well.  We are much less likely to embark on a new path without a real faculty champion.   We are also more willing to try again even if an initiative fails the first time.  Sometimes the time isn’t right and it’s entirely possible that an earlier “failure” was just an initial attempt at success.

Laura Molgaard, DVM <>
Laura Molgaard is the Associate Dean for Academic and Student Affairs at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine.  She (unsuccessfully) championed the original WRS system at the CVM and yet continues to doggedly support eLearning at the CVM.
Deb Wingert, PhD <>
Deb Wingert is the Director of Educational Development at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine and an Educational Specialist at the University of Minnesota Center for Teaching and Learning.  She leads the CVM Seminar on Teaching and Conversations on Teaching as well as the CVM’s efforts to develop an eLearning strategic plan.
Al Beitz, PhD <>
Al Beitz is Professor and Department Chair of the Department of Veterinary and Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary medicine.  He is the faculty champion who successfully led the implementation of iClickers, co-leads the Conversations on Teaching, and has spearheaded many other educational endeavors at the CVM.
David R. Brown, PhD <>
David R. Brown is Professor of Pharmacology and Vice-chair of the Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine.  He teaches veterinary pharmacology and toxicology courses using Moodle 2.0 and iClicker technologies, and currently serves on key CVM educational committees. He is a recipient of the Carl J. Norden Distinguished Teacher award.