The Herd Mentality Is Alive and Well in College Classrooms


A recent study by researchers at Harvard Kennedy School found that when students were asked to respond to a question by raising their hands, the majority of them tended to vote with the herd. However, if students were using clickers to record their responses anonymously, there was less of a tendency to respond in a similar manner.

Dan Levy, Joshua Yardley, and Richard Zeckhauser divided more than 1,100 students in 22 different classes into two groups: one would respond to questions by raising their hands; the other used clickers. For most questions, answers differed significantly between the hand-raisers and the students with clickers. In more than half of the cases, the difference between groups was more than 10 percentage points.

When a question had only one correct answer or was sensitive, students raising their hands had a tendency to vote with the majority. 11% of questions elicited unanimous responses from hand raising, but no clicker response led to a unanimous outcome.

The results suggest that the clickers may be beneficial in allowing students to complete the learning process (thinking through their own independent responses to a question) and thus giving teachers a clearer picture of their students’ learning. Clickers also enable students to comfortably express minority or unpopular political views.

I tried having my students use clickers one semester, several years ago. Perhaps because the technology was relatively new at the time I found the clickers cumbersome to use in the classroom, and as a result by the end of the semester I had abandoned their use.

After reading this article though I am tempted to reconsider bringing them back into the classroom. I believe students are now able to use their smartphones instead of having to buy a special clicker, so I think that would be a significant improvement in terms of ease of use for the students, leading to greater student participation in class.

It reminds me of an experience I had several years ago when I volunteered to go visit my youngest son’s nursery school and read a story to the class. After I was done reading the book I started asking some questions about the book, and for every question I asked, every students’ hand was raised, and the students were almost begging me to call on them. My wife, a pre-k teacher, says that what her class is like every day.

When I ask a question in my class the response is the exact opposite. Most students simply don’t want to participate, and I’m never sure if it’s because they are not sure of the answer, the question is too easy, or they simply don’t care. If I had to guess, I think it is because they are afraid of giving an incorrect answer in public. It reminds me of Ken Robinson’s statement in his TED talk: “if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

So something happens to students between the ages of 4 and 18. They go from being eager to participate in class, to wanting to just sit there anonymously during class, afraid of being wrong.

So perhaps the use of “clickers” are a way to address this issue that will encourage students to be more willing to participate, which will be beneficial to both the student and the teacher.

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