Mini Primer: Using Clickers for Learning

Why Clickers?

Clickers make immediate and frequent feedback possible, which allows for learner-centered assessment even in large classrooms. Numerous studies on clickers enhancing learning outcomes can be found through the UA Libraries. You may also browse this bibliography by Derek Bruff, Vanderbilt Center for Teaching.

Reading tip: Caldwell (2007) provides a dense overview of research about clickers, including perceptions, best practices, types of questions used for clickers, and concludes: "When used during lectures, clickers have either neutral or positive effects and a more strongly positive effect on learning outcomes when combined with peer or cooperative learning."

Research has shown that good use of responseware can enhance student learning by:

  • Fostering a safe, equal opportunity environment. As Margie Martyn writes, “ One of the best features of an SRS [student response system] is that it allows students to provide input without fear of public humiliation and without having to worry about more vocal students dominating the discussion” (Martyn 72).

  • Encouraging attention, participation, and collaboration, especially if polling focuses on problem-solving and is connected to discussion and peer-teaching. Ideally, good portions of a class session are spent collaborating in small groups. This often leads to increased student attendance in class.

  • Appealing to active thinking and learning from mistakes. While recall and monitoring questions are important, questions that require higher levels of thinking are significant to communicate a focus on learning (rather than "testing").

  • Assessing learning in real time through a quiz or exam with immediate discussion of results and formative feedback.This can inform teaching on the fly, for instance by identifying the need to backtrack or to include an additional activity for practice. If not set to anonymous, the polling also allows for monitoring individual students' progress.

  • Allowing students to influence the course of a session without stepping into the spotlight. Polling for "quiet information" helps to assess teaching and to communicate about classroom interaction, for instance finding out what type of practice activity the students perceive as most beneficial.

  • Increasing student presence in class if used to track attendance. If, however, tracking attendance appears the main purpose of the responseware, students tend to react negatively to it.

This link leads you to a comprehensive and introductory video on the nature and uses of clickers by the Western Washington University.

Clickers at the University of Arizona

In this video, University of Arizona professor Thomas Fleming of the Department of Astronomy and Steward Observatory talks about his reasons and strategies for using clickers in his classrooms to foster formative assessment and active learning.

In 2015, over 600 instructors with over 20,000 students used clickers (Turning Technology) at the University of Arizona. If you decide to use clickers in your classes, please visit the OIA resources page "Clickers (Turning Technologies)" in order to access the necessary downloads as well as tips for information to include in your syllabus and your first-day slides to facilitate sufficient and clear communication with your students. Please also consult the D2L Help Pages "Turning Tech/Clickers Overview."  and the UITS resources on "Classroom Response Devices."


Best Practices

Students seek the opportunity of using technology for critical thinking and problem-solving activities, but they may quickly feel disengaged if the technology is overused and not used well. Therefore, the "golden rules" of using responseware are:

  • Communicate that the primary purpose is learning.

  • Ask good questions to develop deep and critical thinking/knowing.

  • Build a learning community by fostering discussion as a process toward better answers.

The video "Explaining to your students why you're using clickers" by the Science Education Initiative will tell you more about the significance of explicit conversation with the students about the purpose of using clickers and the concept of active learning. The video can also be accessed via the website Science Education Initiative (SEI) Videos.

Some general, practical tips:

  • Make certain question situations familiar. Once you have found a few types and structures of questions t hat work well for your course, make sure to repeat them often enough to provide a familiar feel to them.

  • Given the slide format, it helps to avoid any non-essentials and to limit the number of answer choices.

  • You may consider including an "I don't know" option to keep your students from guessing and to improve the accuracy of the polling results for monitoring purposes.

  • When conducting the polling, allow for transparency by showing a countdown timer and the response grid, unless keeping the results invisible is part of your teaching strategy. The students like to see how much time they have for their response and what the results of the polling are.

Some other general tips and recommendations can be found on page 6 figure 1 of Erping Zhu's "Teaching with Clickers" (CRLT Occasional Papers No. 22, University of Michigan). Also scroll down to the list of best practices in Margaret Martyn's "Clickers in the Classroom: An Active Learning Approach" (Educause, 2007).


Teaching Strategies

Quick polling with clickers works effectively as a warm-up exercise, tapping into the student’s prior knowledge about a subject matter, gathering opinions, or identifying misconceptions. Moreover, clickers can be used for more than the instructor asking all students for an answer, either to prompt a discussion or to wrap it up. Peer discussion and instruction are significant components in using clickers to enhance learning. This White Paper from the Carnegie Mellon University includes a detailed discussion of clickers and peer instruction.

Here is one easy example for a collaborative exercise, the Think-Pair-Share:

  • Step 1: Poll with clickers (anonymous or graded). You may, or may not, show the first polling results.

  • Step 2: If polling shows that about 60-80% of students are correct, ask the students to discuss the question with a neighbor for 1-2 minutes to come to consensus.

  • [If only or barely half of the students know the correct answer, backtrack and poll again later. If more than 80% know the answer, briefly comment on it and move on without peer discussion.]

  • Step 3: Poll again (anonymous or graded). The result should be better than before.

Clickers may also be used as a form of peer assessment, when a few students make a choice and the others vote whether or not it was a good one, leading to a consequent discussion.

In this video, University of Arizona Clinical Assistant Professor Carla McPherson of the College of Nursing shares her experiences with a variety of teaching strategies that use clickers to enhance active learning in her classrooms.

On pages 6 to 13 of the University of Colorado “Clicker Resource Guide,” you can find an explanatory breakdown of one possible step-by-step approach to using clicker polling in your classroom in a way that engages students and promotes interaction and active learning. Page 19 contains a list of multiple goals you can pursue by including clickers in your classroom.

The video "How to Use Clickers Effectively" by the Science Education Initiative provides a quick overview about teaching strategies with clickers, for instance best practices, writing effective questions, getting the students to discuss, and how to adjust timing. The video can also be accessed via the website Science Education Initiative (SEI) Videos.


Writing Good Questions

There is no recipe for the perfect question, but according to Beatty et al. in “Designing effective questions for classroom response system teaching” (2006; 2005), a question should accomplish three goals:

  1. A content goal (What piece of subject matter?),

  2. A process goal (How and with what cognitive skills do the students find the answer?), and

  3. A metacognitive goal (What beliefs about learning and the subject matter are reinforced?).

The article further provides practical tips for tactics aimed at directing students’ attention, stimulating specific cognitive processes, communicating information, and facilitating the articulation and confrontation of ideas as well as applied examples.

Teresa Foley and Pei-San Tsai’s “Thought Questions: A new Approach to Using Clickers” (2010) is a short manual to creating higher-level, open-ended questions.

In Teaching with Classroom Response Systems (2009), Derek Bruff distinguishes between two types of questions:

  1. Process questions include those aiming at student perspectives, for instance biographical experience or prior knowledge about the subject matter. Others are questions that assess the confidence level of students and other monitoring questions. They allow immediate feedback on teaching strategies and provide the information necessary to adjust one’s teaching on the fly.

  2. In contrast, content questions aim at working with the teaching content, which may be simple recall questions or those aimed at higher thinking levels. Conceptual questions require the students to identify, compare and contrast, or classify, for instance. Application questions allow working with scenarios to analyze problems, make inferences, apply rules or procedures, or make predictions. In general, critical thinking questions prompt student to choose the best possible answer all while stressing that the reasoning for their answer may be more important than the answer itself.

The most beneficial approach, so Bruff, is to diversify the questions one uses according to the desired teaching strategies and activities. More detail and information can be found in the above mentioned monograph as well as in Agile Learning: Derek Bruff's Blog about Teaching and Technology.


Works Cited

Beatty, I., Gerace, W., Leonard, W., & Dufresne, R. (2006; 2005). Designing effective questions for classroom response system teaching. American Journal of Physics, 74(1), 31-39.

Bruff, D. (2009). Teaching with classroom response systems: Creating active learning environments (1st ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Caldwell, J. E. (2007). Clickers in the large classroom: Current research and best-practice tips.CBE Life Sciences Education,6(1), 9-20. doi:10.1187/cbe.06-12-0205

Martyn, M.A. (2007). Clickers in the classroom: An active learning approach. Educause Quarterly, 2, 71-74.


You are welcome to contact one of our faculty developers to discuss your teaching ideas, concerns, or questions, related to this mini-primer, or any other topic related to teaching and learning. We are happy to work with you via email, phone, or Skype, or meet with you in your office or at the OIA.