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Best Practices for using Personal Response Systems

Clickers are a great way to make your course more interactive. Whereas only a small number of extroverted students may actively participate in traditional classroom discussion, clicker questions elicit an active response from every student, and they may elicit greater participation in subsequent discussions (Keough, 2012).

Additionally, research shows that frequent low-stakes assessment enhances student learning (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014), and in-class clicker questions are one way to incorporate these frequent mini-assessments without adding to your grading load. Clicker questions also have a formative function, allowing students to practice deploying their knowledge before summative assessments occur (Son & Rivas, 2016).

There are two things to consider when integrating clickers into the classroom. The first one is what questions you will ask. The second component is one that may be overlooked. Some commentators refer to this second element as “clicker choreography” (Heiner and Newbury, for example) or the “question cycle” (Beatty et al., 2006), but it is essentially the process you follow to present the clicker questions. The following material describes common types of clicker questions with examples and benefits, as well as a series of different processes you can follow for presenting them in the classroom.

Types of Questions

Most commonly, instructors use clicker questions to check for simple recall of facts or to check attendance. However, evidence suggests that students come to resent the clicker system if it is only used for simple questions asking for knowledge recall or for checking attendance (Terrion & Aceti, 2012). The effectiveness of clickers is also reduced if instructors fail to inform students of the pedagogical value of the clickers.

You may choose to record grades or not when it comes to clicker questions, although grading may increase student engagement and buy-in.

An interesting thing to note about clicker questions is that, since they are typically lower stakes compared to exams, the “distractor” questions can be made trickier in an ethical manner to really dig into their potential misconceptions. Instructors can make more use of questions that solicit the “best answer” rather than “one right answer,” thereby deepening understanding and uncovering potential areas of weakness in student comprehension.

 See below for a chart that summarizes the different types of questions, with examples and descriptions of their benefits.

Type of Question

What it is

What it does

Benefits

Recall

How many lines does a sonnet have? What is the atomic number of hydrogen? What is the answer to this math question?

Check for knowledge of basic facts

Did they do homework/reading? Attendance-taking mechanism, Monitor understanding in mid-lesson, Assess background knowledge

Conceptual Understanding/ Critical Thinking

Which of the following describes a similarity between this reading and the prior reading? Which of these is an effective solution to our problem?

Compare concepts, make evaluations

Higher order thinking, can engage peer discussion/instruction

Application

Given this particular situation, what would you predict to be the outcome? What are the implications of -----? From this study, can we conclude ----?

Predict outcomes or apply knowledge to new contexts

Higher order thinking, can engage peer discussion/instruction, can provoke debate

Student Perspective

Has this ever happened to you? Do you think that….

Survey demographics & existing opinions

Can generate debate, help students connect material to their own experience

Logistics

Should we allow citations of websites or only scholarly sources in our research paper?

Do you want to choose members of your groups for the project or have them assigned?

Gather opinions about classroom policies

Adult learning theory argues that students have more “buy in” if they are given a small amount of control over policies

Confidence Level

How certain are you that your answer is correct? How challenged were you by the homework? What topic do we need to spend more instructional time on?

Triggers student self-analysis

Engages metacognition, informs instruction pace

Processes (“Clicker Choreography”)

Several processes exist, and they elicit different classroom dynamics and student thought processes. Also, to some extent, the type of question you present will dictate which process would work best. The best processes involve using the clicker questions to generate class discussion, including small-group discussion. Doing so allows students to engage in peer instruction, which is a particularly effective way to ensure successful student learning outcomes.

Some of the following processes require students to input their answers individually before discussion with peers. This process has the benefit of making students take responsibility for their own reasoning rather than automatically going with the group consensus. Alternatively, there are benefits to NOT requiring students to input their individual response prior to having a peer discussion. This allows students to get help from others about anything that may be confusing, exposes them to alternatives before they’ve made up their mind, and requires them to engage in explaining and defending their reasoning in small groups, especially when a consensus must be reached.

No matter which process you use, make sure to give plenty of time for them to read and think about the question (at least 2-5 minutes).

The following processes were partially derived from material by Heiner and Newbury for the University of Colorado Boulder Science Education Initiative and retrieved from https://www.colorado.edu/sei/documents/Workshops/Handouts/Clicker-handouts-2.pdf

Process 1

This is the simplest process. It is good for all types of questions but especially relevant for simple recall, attendance checks, student perspective, logistics and confidence level questions.

  1. Set up
  2. Pose question
  3. Input answers individually
  4. Display results
  5. Discuss

A good variation on this process that increases its metacognitive value is to ask a follow up question prior to revealing the correct answer: “How confident are you in your answer to the first question?”

Process 2:

  1. Set up
  2. Pose Question
  3. Small group peer Discussion
  4. Input answers (individually or based on group consensus)
  5. Display results
  6. Whole Class discussion (Focus on WHY particular answer is right and WHY other answers are wrong)

Process 3:

  1. Set up
  2. Pose Question
  3. Think individually
  4. Input answer
  5. Display results
  6. Group discussion
  7. Input answer again
  8. Display results again
  9. Whole Class discussion
  10. Closure

An important note on this process: Consider not displaying answers from the first vote unless there is a wide distribution of answers. Simply say: There seems to be two popular choices. You can then discuss eliminating one or more choices. Delaying the answer can stimulate discussion.

Have students volunteer to advocate for their choice. If those who answered incorrectly are too shy to explain their choice, then frame it as “Even if you didn’t answer C, why might someone be tempted to answer C?”

Another variation: Withhold the immediate display of results and have the whole class discussion first since displaying the right answer can sometimes shut down discussion.

Process 4 (for opinion-based questions):

  1. Set up, taking care to explain that this is a debate/opinion-based question with no right answer
  2. Pose question
  3. Think individually
  4. Input answer
  5. Display results
  6. Whole class discussion framed as debate
  7. Input individual answer again
  8. Display results
  9. Closure

For questions with no right answer designed to stimulate debate, having students advocate for their answer can be helpful, but you can also include a variation such as requiring them to take on the perspective of a different answer.

References:

Brown, P.C., Roediger III, H.L., & McDaniel, M.A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: 2014.

Beatty, I.D., Gerace, W.J., Leonard, W.J., & Dufresne, R.J. (2006). Designing effective questions for classroom response system teaching. American Journal of Physics 74(31), 31-39.  Retrieved from https://ww2.amstat.org/publications/jse/v19n2/titman.pdf

University of Colorado Science Education Initiative and the UBC Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative. (2017). Clicker resource guide: An instructors’ guide to the effective use of personal response systems (clickers) in teaching.

Heiner, C. & Newbury, P. Clicker choreography [handout]. University of Colorado Boulder Science Education Initiative. Retrieved from https://www.colorado.edu/sei/documents/Workshops/Handouts/Clicker-handouts-2.pdf

Keough, S.M. (2012). Clickers in the classroom: A review and replication. Journal of Management Education 36(6), 822-847.

Son, J.Y. & Rivas, M.J. (2016). Designing clicker questions to stimulate transfer. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology 2(3), 193-207.

Titman, A.C. & Lancaster, G.A. (2011). Personal response systems for teaching postgraduate statistics to small groups. Journal of Statistics Education 19(2).

Terrion, J.L & Aceti, V. (2012). Perceptions of the effects of clicker technology on student learning and engagement: A study of freshmen chemistry students. Research in Learning Technology 20(2).