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Effective use of Clickers in Teaching - What Every Faculty Member Should Know

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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The Tomorrow's Professor Mailing List will be taking its annual postings break for the Northern Hemisphere summer. This break will allow us, among other things, to replenish our bank of potential postings. The next posting will appear on SEPTEMBER 2, 2008.


The posting below is a follow-on to the previous posting, #883 Teaching with Clickers. It is a summary of the highlights of a publication: Clicker Resource Guide: An Instructor's Guide to the Effective Use of Personal Response Systems (Clickers) in Teaching (see link in posting below). The article is by Beth Simon, CSE Department, University of California, San Diego, and is taken liberally from the full guide -- with the permission of the CWSEI (Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia).


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Science Education for Everyone: Why and What?

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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What Every Faculty Member Should Know about the Effective use of Clickers in Teaching


* Why is it that every faculty member who is experienced with using clickers effectively swears by them?

* Why are the students in classes using well-implemented clicker questions dramatically more engaged and asking more numerous and deeper questions?

* Why do the students in these classes overwhelmingly recommend that clickers should be used in all lecture classes?

This article highlights a guide written to help instructors understand the answers to these questions, and to help them use personal response systems ("clickers") in their classes in the most comfortable and pedagogically effective manner. The authors are involved in the Science Education Initiative at the University of Colorado and the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia. They have supported many different instructors as they introduced or refined the use of clickers into their courses, several of them have used clickers extensively in teaching, and the have observed a large number of classes - both those which use clickers and those which do not. They have also carried out a number of studies on clicker use and their impact on students and on student opinions about their use.

What are Clickers?

Clickers (or personal response systems) are physical devices which allow each student to electronically submit an answer to a question from their seat in class. Using what looks like a television remote control, students usually answer multiple choice questions posed to the class. Students register their answer by pushing the appropriate button, and a computer records their response. A histogram of responses can be shown to the whole class. There are a number of commercial clicker systems available.

Using Clickers Effectively for Learning

The first point about clickers that must be emphasized is that clickers in themselves are not a solution to anything. Like a chalkboard, they can only serve to extend the capabilities of the instructor. Although clickers can be, and unfortunately often are, used primarily to encourage attendance, they are most effective when they are used expressly to facilitate intellectual engagement of the student and communication between student and instructor. When used this way, the amplification of a good instructor's capabilities can

transform a classroom and result in dramatically improved student learning, particularly in large classes. In the words of one instructor known to be an exceptionally good traditional lecturer when half way through his first term of using clickers:

"This is great fun. My worst day using clickers is about as good as my best day using standard lecture [in the past]."

An experienced insightful instructor, when giving a traditional lecture, can tell when many of the students are not engaged and can often tell when students do not understand the material. However, it is more difficult to know *why* they are disengaged and/or confused, and how to fix these problems. Clickers, when used well, can provide the *why* and *how to fix* for experienced instructors. For other instructors, in addition to serving those functions, clickers can also help them know much better *when* students are disengaged and


It is essential to recognize that these benefits do not happen automatically when one introduces clickers to the classroom. These desirable outcomes are only achieved when the instructor thinks carefully about his or her instructional goals and how clicker questions and related discussion can help achieve those goals. It can take some time to tap the full potential of clickers in the classroom. The "Clicker Resource Guide: An Instructor's Guide to the Effective Use of Personal Response Systems (Clickers) in Teaching" (available

here: not only outlines a common progression of clicker use, but also describes in detail recommended approaches, writing effective questions, and logistics (including dealing with unexpected situations). It also provides an extensive FAQ and an appendix of example questions from the sciences.

Below is a review of the key points from the guide:

* Clickers are not a magic bullet - they are not necessarily useful as an end in themselves. Clickers become useful when you have a clear idea as to what you want to achieve with them, and the questions are designed to improve student engagement and instructor-student interaction.

* What clickers do provide is a way to rapidly collect an answer to a question from every student; an answer for which they are individually accountable. This allows rapid reliable feedback to both you and the students.

* Used properly, clickers can tell you when students are disengaged and/or confused, why this has happened, and can help you to fix the situation.

* 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


* A common mistake is to use clicker questions that are too easy. Students value challenging questions more and learn more from them. Students often learn the most from a question that they get wrong.

* For challenging questions, students should be given some time to think about the clicker question on their own, and then discuss with their peers.

* Good clicker questions and discussion result in deeper, more numerous questions from a much wider range of students than in traditional lecture.

* Listening to the student discussions will allow you to much better understand and address student thinking.

* Even though you will sacrifice some coverage of content in class, students will be more engaged and learn much more of what you do cover.

* When clickers are used correctly, students overwhelmingly support their use and say they help their learning.