Amanda Zullo

Clicking Into Engaging Science Lessons

When Amanda Zullo began teaching a multi-grade high school chemistry class, she knew she needed to change the way her class worked to meet the needs of a wider range of students. With no prerequisites, the Regents chemistry course placed in the same classroom “the valedictorian and the kids who are hoping to meet the graduation requirements,” she says. “It challenged me to try different ways of teaching to reach the broadest group of students possible.”

Zullo shifted to an inquiry-based model of classroom instruction, one in which students work together in groups to solve open-ended problems. To ensure students were on task, she walked from group to group to check for understanding. But she knew that spot checks “based on gut” weren’t enough to ensure that all students were learning.

In searching for a solution, Zullo discovered a counterintuitive corollary about technology and teaching: finding a tool to quickly gauge student understanding paved the way for more open-ended, deeper learning.

Through the NEA Foundation Student Achievement Grant, Zullo obtained a classroom set of “clickers,” a system of handheld devices that students use to respond to questions posed during class. The system compiles the results and pinpoints which students are struggling to understand key concepts, allowing Zullo to focus on helping exactly who needs it.

“You could tell if the kids were on target as they were doing these projects,” she says. “It immediately took the fear factor out of spending a day teaching kids something they may or may not learn from. With this, I can just find out on the spot and adjust on the fly to make sure everyone’s on target with the learning goals at hand.”

Zullo worked with other science and math teachers to learn how to use the system, which has also helped spark classroom discussion. “A teacher could borrow the laptop from the library, pick up the clickers and bring them to their classroom and use them,” Zullo says. “It became very seamless.” Collaboration on the technology also opened the door for collaboration in the classroom, as Zullo began co-teaching lessons with an Algebra teacher. “As we found this was effective, we were encouraged to try more and broader things,” she says.

The technology has also helped focus tutoring in the school’s after school library program, which is overseen by educational support staff. “You can export reports from the system and see what kids got right and wrong,” Zullo says. “That way, the students come into the library after school and get help with what they need. It’s helped realign that support with the classroom expectations.”

All told, 300 students and 15 teachers have used the clickers since they were introduced in March 2012. Zullo saw the number of critical thinking statements included in student lab reports increase by 45 percent; this is a significant increase and is what new standards such as the Common Core State Standards aspire to achieve.   

The clicker has facilitated formative assessment of student understanding, higher-order and cross-disciplinary instruction, and more aligned afterschool supports—all of these are known by research to contribute to higher-student achievement.   Zullo adds, however, that an equally important shift occurred—she became a more “reflective” teacher. That is, with the reports generated by the clickers, she had access to a new source of data and information that she could use to reflect on and tweak her practice. In her own words, “In the end, the reflection on what’s happening in your classroom is really valuable.”