CUClickers - Instructor Pedagogical Resources

Last Updated: 11/15/2012

Overview

Many instructors immediately see the benefit of using clickers to ask students questions about the material in the middle of lecture, providing both students and instructors with instant feedback on students’ understanding. Just how the clickers are used in the classroom can have a huge impact – on student learning, as well as how receptive they are to this teaching technique. This section provides some suggestions and ideas for the effective use of clickers based both on educational research and the experience of seasoned instructors.

Benefits of Using Clickers

There are a variety of benefits to the use of clickers, especially when used in conjunction with student discussion about the questions (see “Best Practices:  Peer Instruction”) below.

Promote student engagement

Research suggests that attention wanes after 10 minutes of lecture.  A clicker question provides a natural breaking point in a lecture, allowing students to consider, and try to apply, what they have just learned.  This switch from passive to active learning helps keep students involved in the class.  It also promotes student ownership of the material.  As one professor puts it:  “I demand that every student in my classroom have a voice.  I just limit that voice to A,B,C,D,E.”

Accountability

Because discussion answers are recorded, students have more incentive to fully consider the question and discuss it with one another than the typical verbal question posed by an instructor.

Commit to an answer

There appears to be a cognitive benefit to students who commit to a particular answer choice with a definitive vote, rather than simply discussing the question.  Once the student’s vote is cast, they are more likely to be invested in the outcome of the question than if they had considered the question without voting.

Learn what your students are thinking

Clickers allow faculty to hear from all students in the class through an electronic vote, not just the students in the front of the room who are more willing to share their thoughts.  This allows an instructor to more appropriately target the lecture material to the students.  Additionally, circulating the classroom while students discuss a question provides a valuable opportunity to eavesdrop on student conversation, providing a window on student thinking, and allowing additional interaction with students.

Give feedback to students on their understanding

The limits of understanding are revealed when it is applied.  Thus, while students may nod their heads during lecture and feel that they understand, a clicker question can give an opportunity for students to take a shot at using that knowledge and get feedback on how they compare to the rest of the class.

Learning by doing

People don’t learn well by passively listening to a lecture.  Thus, clickers provide an opportunity not just for students to figure out whether they understand something or not, but also to wrestle with the material in a more active way.  Thus, clicker questions are a learning opportunity as well as an assessment opportunity.

Anonymous to peers

Students feel more comfortable sharing their honest responses via the electronic clicker, where others can’t see their answers.  While the clicker responses aren’t truly anonymous (unless the faculty has used the fully anonymous mode), they are anonymous where it counts – to their peers. Some studies have found that use of raised hands or colored cards reduce the honesty of student responses.

Promotes communication

Clicker questions are a great way to encourage discussion in the classroom, giving students a chance to learn from their peers.  It also gives them an opportunity to share their ideas with the instructor, promoting a classroom culture that is more inclusive.  Several instructors have noted that the use of clicker questions also results in more spontaneous questions from students.  Once they are given this permission to speak, a more collaborative classroom culture can emerge.

For more information about the benefits of using clickers, see the video “Clickers: Teachers and Students Speak” from the Science Education Initiative at the University of Colorado at Boulder, at http://STEMvideos.colorado.edu

Best Practices: Peer Instruction

Numerous studies have shown that use of clickers doesn’t necessarily promote greater student learning, or lead to the benefits described above.  Clickers are no magic bullet.  The best use of clickers includes:

  • A clear idea of what the clickers will be used to achieve
  • Questions designed to promote student engagement
  • Student peer discussion about the questions
  • Instructor discussion with students about the ultimate answer

Peer Instruction

A strategy of using clickers specifically to spark student discussion has been demonstrated to be highly effective. Called peer instruction, this method is outlined as follows:

  1. Question. Instructor poses a challenging question. More...

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    We discuss methods of writing effective questions below.  The most important feature is that the question ought to be on an important topic, and that it be something that students want and need to discuss with one another in order to understand it.  We typically ask 2-5 questions in each 50-minute lecture.  Using questions only a few times can result in student resentment (for having to buy the clickers for this minimal use), and reduce their overall impact.
  2. Individual vote. Students will often vote on the question on their own, or at least consider silently first. More...

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    There is some evidence that it is useful for students to vote individually before turning to their neighbors, in order to solidify their thinking before engaging in discussion.  This also helps to send the message that students need to think about the questions for themselves, not just rely on other students. However, out of all the steps of peer instruction, this is most likely the one that could be removed in the interest of time.

    The results of an individual vote can also indicate to an instructor whether peer discussion is necessary.  A rule of thumb is that if 90% of the students answer correctly, discussion is probably not needed, whereas if 75% or less answer correctly, peer discussion is definitely needed.  Be very careful about skipping the peer discussion portion, however, as this is the “meat” of this instructional method, and what helps students learn. Even if the majority of students answer correctly, however, don’t assume that they got the right answer for the right reason: A discussion of what makes the right answer the best choice is still important.

    Regardless, we strongly recommend NOT showing the histogram of student responses after this initial vote, as this can sway the ensuing discussion. An exception is if the vote is a 50/50 split, as this can generate productive discussion.

  3. Peer Discussion. Students discuss the question in pairs or small groups. More...

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    Several studies show that students learn through discussion with their peers:  They are better able to answer a similar question after peer discussion, and are able to put together the answer to a difficult question even if nobody in the group knew the answer to begin with.  One key to creating rich student discussion is to use questions that students want to discuss.  Another important consideration is how you “pre-sell” the idea of peer instruction to your students (see “Student Buy-In, below”). Lastly, the way that you conduct the Whole Class Discussion (see below) can affect what students think their job is during the peer discussion.  Instructors often find it helpful to circulate the room as students discuss the questions, to model good Socratic questioning, and to hear student reasoning. We typically allow a few minutes per question, or until the students seem to be done discussing.

  4. Vote. Students click in with their individual response. More...

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    Students then click in with their individual choice.  Once again, we recommend NOT displaying the histogram of student responses yet.  Rather, wait until the end of the Whole Class Discussion in order to maintain the suspense, and ensure that you hear student voices about all answer choices, not just the majority vote.

  5. Whole-Class Discussion. The instructor and students collectively discuss the question and answer choices, focusing on the reasoning. More...

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    Just as research has shown that peer discussion is important for students to get the most benefit from a clicker question, it has also been demonstrated that it is crucial that the instructor weigh-in at the end of the process about why they favor the correct answer, and why. Before the instructor acts as the final arbiter, however, it is important to lead a whole-class discussion where students share their reasoning for different answer choices.  One wording we find useful is, “Why might someone pick B? What is tempting about B, even if you didn’t answer B?”  This is less threatening, and also indicates that you are interested in the reasoning more than simply the right answer. This can also help the peer discussion be more effective – if students realize that you will ask them to share their reasoning, then they will focus on reasoning during their discussion with their neighbors.

    For a detailed discussion of best-practices in clicker questions, see the video “How to use clickers effectively” at http://STEMvideos.colorado.edu, and the Instructor’s Guide at http://www.cwsei.ubc.ca/resources/files/Clicker_guide_CWSEI_CU-SEI.pdf

Writing Clicker Questions

The best questions focus on concepts you feel are particularly important and involve challenging ideas with multiple plausible answers that reveal student confusion and generate spirited student discussion.

Levels of questions

A common mistake is to use clicker questions that are too easy. Students often get annoyed at having to answer quiz-like questions.  Easy questions can also mislead the students as to the difficulty of questions they should expect on exams.  Students value challenging questions more and learn more from them. Students often learn the most from a question that they get wrong. 

It’s important to use a mixture of simple and complex questions.  If they are all very easy, that is misleading as described above.  But if they’re all very difficult, that can also be discouraging to students.

We find that perusing verbs and sample questions that exemplify higher-order levels of thinking, such as those on this sheet (http://www.cwsei.ubc.ca/resources/files/ClickerWorkshopMaterials/Bloom%27s_Taxonomy%27s-GREEN.pdf) can be useful in writing challenging questions, or  transforming an easy question to a more difficult one.

Types of questions

Clicker questions can serve many purposes – below are some common uses:

  1. Quiz on the reading assigned in preparation for the class
  2. Test recall of lecture point
  3. Do a calculation or choose next step in a complex calculation
  4. Survey students to determine background or opinions
  5. Elicit/reveal pre-existing thinking
  6. Test conceptual understanding
  7. Apply ideas in new context/explore implications
  8. Predict results of lecture demo, experiment, or simulation, video, etc.
  9. Draw on knowledge from everyday life
  10. Relate different representations (graphical, mathematical, ...)

While each mode can be useful in the right circumstances, those in bold above are the uses that we have seen the largest direct impact on learning and the uses that students report they find of most value. Not surprisingly, these reflect the deepest mastery of a subject and hence have been shown to be the most challenging for students to learn. We recommend that the majority of questions fall into these bolded categories.

A useful article that outlines some question design goals and tactics (Beatty et al., 2006) can be found here:  http://www.srri.umass.edu/sites/srri/files/beatty-2006deq.pdf

Where to find questions

The best source of clicker questions is an instructor who has taught the course before, or from a question bank. Some question banks in the sciences are listed at http://STEMclickers.colorado.edu.  Some textbooks also have multiple choice questions that accompany the material. These are often too easy, however, and need to be made more complex.

  • Other possible sources of questions are:
  • Questions you pose to students spontaneously in class
  • Questions you hear students pose in class or office hours
  • Common difficulties on homeworks or exams
  • Analogies you use in class

Writing plausible answer choices

It can be tough to come up with tempting “wrong” answer choices, or “distractors”.  Some sources for distractors are:

  • Your experience with common difficulties
  • Talking to other instructors
  • Giving the question to students as an open-ended question
  • Student responses on homeworks and exams
  • Talking with students during class or office hours
  • Documented misconceptions and difficulties in the literature

Student Buy In

It is important to explain to students why you are using clickers, and how you expect them to engage in the questions and discussion. Students may resent being required to do more work in class unless they realize that this is something that will help them to better learn the material and succeed in your course. We find it works best to give students at least two or three “speeches” during the beginning of the term regarding the benefit of engaging with and discussing the questions.

One approach is to use a “Why do you think we use clickers?” clicker question at the start of class, with answer choices such as, “helps you communicate your ideas,” “gives me feedback on how well you understand the topic,” “encourages attendance,” and “encourages you to engage with the material.”

As the semester continues, if students see that you revise your lecture when the clicker results show that they do not understand something, this sends a positive signal that can result in more positive attitudes towards clickers.

That said, students are overwhelmingly positive about the use of clickers, especially when an instructors use them in a manner similar to the recommendations in this guide. 

For an example “sales pitch” to students, see the video, “Explain to your students” at http://STEMvideos.colorado.edu.

Concerns

Content coverage

One of the most common concerns is the time that it takes to run a clicker question with peer discussion.  Instructors worry that this will reduce their ability to cover important content.  It is true that some content coverage will be sacrificed, but students will be more engaged and learn more of what you do cover.  Many instructors move some of the previously-covered material out of class (e.g., moving the derivation of a formula to homework), or pare down their course material to focus on the essential topics and ideas that students should learn.

Cheating

Some instructors offer credit for answering clicker questions to encourage participation.  We suggest offering mostly participation credit, with minimal or no credit for correctness.   The reason for this is twofold:  First, high-stakes grading discourages open discussion about the answer choices, making the clicker question into an assessment rather than a learning opportunity.  Secondly, high-stakes grading does encourage cheating.  We suggest you talk directly to students about cheating, and that using someone else’s clicker is like taking an exam for another student.  Discuss the consequences of cheating, and circulate the classroom to note whether students are using more than one clicker.

Preparation time

It can indeed take additional time to write your questions the first time around, and incorporate them with your lecture material.  You can find help in some pre-prepared questions (see “Writing Questions,” below).  But once you have your first set of drafted questions, the time investment in later semesters is much reduced.

Losing control of the class

Some instructors worry that they’ll have a hard time getting students back on task after the peer discussion. This is typically not as big of a problem as faculty might fear.  It’s useful to have some sort of signal to bring the class back together (such as a bell, or flashing the lights), and make it clear that you expect students to end their discussions when you ask them to.   Generally, student behavior problems during clicker questions can be addressed in the same way that other behavior problems might be tackled – by addressing it in a non-confrontational but firm manner.

Technical problems

Our clicker system, iClicker, was chosen because of its’ simplicity, to minimize technical difficulties.  Still it’s important to practice with the equipment before using it in class, to minimize potential technical issues.  You can also make it clear to students that such problems will not affect any grading or points for the clicker questions that you might be using.  And if all else fails, pose the question and ask for show-of-hands.

Learn more

Reading this website will get you started, but it’s helpful to seek out other opportunities to improve your use of clickers over time.

Videos

See clickers in action in a variety of courses at CU at video page developed by the Science Education Initiative at the University of Colorado at Boulder, online at http://STEMvideos.colorado.edu

Workshops

Both the Faculty Teaching Excellence Program (FTEP:  http://www.colorado.edu/ftep/events/schedule.html) and the Office of Information Technology provides periodic workshops for clicker users.

Online Resources

The Science Education Initiative at the University of Colorado at Boulder has also developed a variety of resources to assist instructors, including links to relevant articles and books, a downloadable Instructor’s Clicker Resource Guide, and links to high quality banks of clicker questions in the sciences.  Visit http://STEMclickers.colorado.edu.

Clicker Resource Guide:  An Instructor’s Guide to the Effective Use of Personal Response Systems (Clickers) in Teaching.  This short guide gives useful tips and ideas on how to best use clickers.   Developed by the Science Education Initiative at the University of Colorado and the University of British Columbia. 

http://www.cwsei.ubc.ca/resources/files/Clicker_guide_CWSEI_CU-SEI.pdf

Tips for Successful “Clicker” Use

This practial two-page tipsheet gives a quick overview of practices that lead to success with clickers… and those that lead to failure.  Developed by Doug Duncan of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

http://www.cwsei.ubc.ca/resources/files/Tips_for_Successful_Clicker_Use_Duncan.pdf