A Tempting Experiment

You’re not trained for that

I recently listened to this episode of the Hidden Brain podcast, on using audible clickers to train humans how to throw a frisbee and perform surgery. Clickers seem to be very effective in part because they substitute for other, possibly emotion-laden reactions from the trainer.

I wondered how I might use clickers as a teaching tool, and had an email conversation with a psychology colleague who specializes in behavioral training. Here is the gist of the conversation:

Clickers provide immediate positive feedback for a specific, discrete action within a complex chain of behaviors, without the need to interrupt the chain as it unfolds.

Any process that is composed of multiple, discrete behaviors is amenable to clicker training, as long as the process can be observed by the teacher and the clicks can be delivered within a second or two of observing the targeted response. An activity like writing is probably not suitable for clickers, because the writing process can’t easily be separated into a series of precisely-defined behaviors, and it would require that the teacher continuously observe the student perform the writing task from start to finish.

However, the technique could be applied to something like class presentations — with clicks delivered when students complete important components of the presentation, such as using terminology correctly, answering an important question, speaking at an adequate volume, or making eye contact with the audience.

Clicks should initially be delivered each time the targeted behavior is displayed, but then systematically delivered less often as the behavior becomes more frequent. Likewise, they should only be used to indicate support for a desirable behavior rather than to signal disapproval of an undesirable behavior.

Last, teachers should obtain consent or buy-in from students about the process and its goals.