Linneman's 'large' class: Sociology with clickers

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Professor Tom Linneman’s challenge was huge: Make the large class—Principles of Sociology —feel small. Comprising nearly 200 students, its enrollment would be more than three times greater than any other he had taught. At his disposal was technology; specifically, the clicker. His goal: Teach the course “in the William & Mary way.”

Prep time was short. Colleague Kate Slevin had taught the class for several years. When she became the College's Vice Provost for Academic Affairs in 2010, she left it vacant. Linneman stepped in. He did not take it lightly.

To Linneman, recipient of the 2005 Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award from the College, to be a professor means to teach. He equates “the William & Mary way” with high levels of faculty-student interaction. Consequently, as he designed the class, he focused on the interactive aspects of the clicker system.

The clicker tool, similar in function to the sampling devices popularized on television game shows such as “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” and “Family Feud,” enables an almost instantaneous sampling of audience opinion. Called clicker for the input device held in students’ hands, its associated software immediately categorizes and graphs responses, making them available for display. Linneman would use it to gauge the students’ understanding of the readings as well as to measure their understanding of the material as he was presenting it. He also would use it to help gauge their attitudes or even their personal experiences.

As the class began, there were the expected struggles in terms of integrating the technology: “You don’t want technology to be the focus,” Linneman explained. “You want it to provide you with tools. The first couple weeks of the semester when we were getting the technology fine-tuned, it was a little more of the focus than I wanted it to be.” After a few weeks, however, both instructor and students became comfortable. “It seemed to fade into the background and helped me be a better teacher, I think,” he said.

“During any individual class, I would lecture for 10 minutes or so and then say, ‘Let’s see how this is going,’” Linneman said. The response helped him determine whether it was time to move to another topic or to stay with the one at hand.

Quickly he came to appreciate the confidential nature of the electronic system. “In sociology, we deal with sensitive matters,” he explained. “Once we had a reading on the very interesting increase in the prevalence of tattoos throughout the demographic spectrum,” he said. “So I was able to ask them about their personal experiences, whereas if I were to ask them to raise their hands, a lot of them would have been uncomfortable.”

For the record, about one-quarter of class members admitted to having tattoos. In follow-up, Linneman invited those who indicated “yes” to elaborate. Their openness led to what the professor called “a very interesting discussion.”

During one class, he was able to take input concerning the cover of his newest book, Social Statistics: The Basics and Beyond. He had received an e-mail message from his publisher half an hour before the class started. Attached were three choices for the cover of his book. Linneman displayed them to the class and took feedback with the clicker.  Students chose, although not unanimously, the image selected for publication.

Linneman realizes that by teaching the class he is, in effect, selling sociology. Less than 15 percent of the students in the class have declared sociology as a major. Half of the students are freshmen. Toward that end, he moves the course during the semester from the quantitative and qualitative methods used by sociologists to consideration of social movements—what they are and how they emerge.

“I like to end the course with this topic because so often sociologists get a bad rap for studying what problems exist in society but don’t have a whole lot, sometimes, on the solution side,” he explained. “I like to think of sociology as how we as individuals are affected by the social institutions and the social structures that surround us on an everyday basis. But I also want to show students how people change those institutions and structures.” After all, it was that vibrancy of the discipline that convinced him to make it his career.

After a semester teaching the course, he is convinced that such enthusiasm can be effectively conveyed in the large lecture hall.

“I’m now convinced that this technology works,” Linneman said. Already he is thinking about ways to improve his use of it next year.  “When I go back to my office after a clicker day, I open up a Microsoft file and I see all of the responses,” he said. “The one thing that clickers do is give a lot of data really fast.” One intriguing possibility he is pondering involves the option of using the technology to perform more complicated data analysis right in front of the class, modeling the exact techniques he wants his students to learn.