Published: April 20, 2012

As clickers gain prevalence in the common classroom environment, understanding how to use them efficiently has become increasingly important. On March 16, 2012, Dr. Angel Hoekstra and Dr. Stefanie Mollborn presented at the Teaching with Technology seminar on “pedagogical strategies for teaching with clickers in the social sciences.” At the beginning of the seminar, Mollborn and Hoekstra noted that, like any pedagogical tool, how clickers are used in the classroom is crucial to achieving efficacy with the technology.

Clickers, a tool being used by over 1000 institutions of higher education and over 2 million students in the US, offer instructors a new mode for engaging their students. Using clickers, students offer immediate responses to instructor-posed, multiple-choice questions via voting-style remotes. This has multiple advantages, ranging from immediate feedback for the instructor to active engagement by the students. According to Mollborn and Hoekstra, clickers help students to, “evaluate, reason, and question ideas and information.” That being said, clickers are used differently in different disciplines.

For example, instructors in the natural sciences have consistently been at the forefront of clicker use in large lecture halls, utilizing clicker questions oriented around correct and incorrect answers. Mollborn and Hoekstra noted, however, that “pedagogical strategies for clicker use developed in the natural sciences often prove less useful for learning in social science courses.” The use of ConcepTest-style questions (questions primarily used in the natural sciences in which students are quizzed on concepts and the goal is to find the correct answer) in social courses sometimes leads to a learning community that feels examination-oriented, rather than one which focuses on a cooperative exploration of course material. This suggests that the format and nature of the questions being asked via clickers can prove essential to the effectiveness of the technology as a learning aid. Next, a list and explanation of different types of clicker questions and how to use them effectively in the social sciences are presented below.

The “Right-Answer” Question:

As indicated by its title, this type of question deals with scenarios in which students can come to a conclusive and definitive correct answer. While this style of question corresponds directly to the ConcepTest questions utilized predominantly in natural science courses, it can still be used to facilitate learning in social science courses. However, a common mistake instructors make is by simply showing the correct answer and then moving forward with the lecture. This process can leave students confused on how to come to the same conclusion on their own. In order for this style of question to remain effective, social science instructors should make sure that they explain why the correct answer is right and why incorrect answers are wrong.

This style question can be broken up into two main types of questions: ConcepTest style questions, and reading quiz questions; both of which feature a correct answer.

ConcepTest-style Questions:

ConcepTest questions have predominately been utilized in natural science courses. These questions are generally fact based or single-correct-answer questions. They can also be used to apply course concepts to empirical situations while providing immediate assessment and feedback to the instructor on how well students are learning in class.

Here is an example written by Dr. Hoekstra:

Which of the following theories best explains the given scenario [insert scenario]?

  1. Functionalism
  2. Conflict theory
  3. Symbolic interaction
  4. Postmodern theory
  5. Not sure/none of the above

Reading Quiz Questions:

According to Mollborn and Hoekstra, reading quiz style questions can help foster accountability to ensure that assigned reading is being done prior to class. They also suggested that these questions should remain simple and only test broad based knowledge to gauge whether or not a task was accomplished. The following is an example provided by Dr. Mollborn:

In the reading, what gender combination led to the lowest likelihood of negotiating, as well as a poor evaluation if the job candidate does negotiate for a higher salary?

  1. Female evaluator, female candidate
  2. Female evaluator, male candidate
  3. Male evaluator, female candidate
  4. Male evaluator, male candidate
  5. There was no difference

Empirical Questions:

Many social science classes encourage discussion. Generally, this is facilitated by thought-provoking inquiries posed by the professor. However, as many of us know, this can often be intimidating and cause many students to remain quiet when presented with broad and open-ended questions. To streamline the process, the use of clickers helps students to hone in on specifics, using two types of questions to spur discussion.

Past experience questions:

These types of questions require students to think critically about the way that past experiences often affect current and future behaviors. Past experience questions also force participants to reflect upon their own personal experiences within the context of current infrastructure and culture. Here is one example Dr. Mollborn used in a Gender class:

When you were growing up, which of your parents made the most money?

  1. Don’t have two opposite-sex parents, one or both did not work, varied from year to year
  2. Dad usually earned a lot more
  3. Dad usually earned a little more
  4. Mom usually earned a little more
  5. Mom usually earned a lot more

Demographic questions:

Questions focused around demographics help students compare differences between their own loci and the larger US population. These questions may also help students to reflect upon historical trends as they affect culture and society. An example of this style of question was provided by Dr. Hoekstra:

How are you paying for college?

  1. My parents/other family members are paying for all of my college education
  2. My parents/family members are paying for some of my college, loans, work pay the rest
  3. Some combination of loans and working
  4. I am working to pay for all of my college education myself
  5. Other

Opinion/Critical Thinking Questions:

Questions revolving around opinion and critical thinking help solicit student perceptions of ideas, concepts, and data to initiate discussion conducive to critical thinking. Hoekstra and Mollborn explained that the response data gathered from these questions can often serve as a “jumping off point for group discussion and reflection.” In other words, this form of question can lead to evaluations of theoretical explanations or application of concepts to real life scenarios.  One example of this style of question is:

How much do you think cultural factors explain the difference in evidence of (or the facts about) violent behavior between men and women in U.S. culture today?

  1. Not much at all
  2. A little
  3. Cultural factors are sometimes useful, or predictive, in this case
  4. Cultural factors explain most of what we see in this difference
  5. Don’t know/Other

While some faculty may assume that clickers are only useful in assessing students’ knowledge of concepts via right or wrong answers, the application of clickers in a classroom can range far beyond that. Hoekstra and Mollborn argue that clickers can be used to engage students in active learning, where students are stimulated to ask questions and think critically rather than simply transcribe information.

Steph Hayden
ASSETT Community Coordinator
CU '14