Personal Response Systems

Clickers are stand-alone handheld devices or apps installed on a smartphone or laptop that allow students to respond to an instructor's multiple-choice questions. These responses are instantly tabulated by software so that the instructor, and potentially the students, can see the results. Used effectively, clickers can foster participation as well as student engagement with course content.

The brand of clicker/app that the University of Waterloo centrally supports is the iClicker. iClicker offers the handheld clicker as well as an app that can be installed student devices such as smart phones and laptops. 


The benefits of clickers include:

  1. Facilitate peer instruction
  2. Give in-class quizzes at the beginning of a class to ascertain whether students have read something assigned for class. This can help to support the flipped classroom. 
  3. Give in-class quizzes at the end of a class so the instructor can assess whether students have understood the content. 
  4. Quickly take attendance.Evidence of efficacy
Clickers in the Classroom: The Research, is an eight-minute video featuring evidence from a clicker study conducted by the Science Education Initiative at the University of Boulder. 

Increased student engagement

  • Kaleta and Joosten (2007) report that faculty agreed or strongly agreed that there was greater student engagement (94%), participation (87%), and interaction (68%) in class as a result of clicker use. The majority of students also agreed or strongly agreed that the use of clickers made them feel more engaged (69%) in class, increased participation (70%), and helped them pay attention (67%).

Improved class attendance

  • Caldwell (2007) reports that “when clicker scores accounted for 15% or more of the course grade, attendance rose to 80-90%.”

Diminished attrition

  • Caldwell (2007) reports that clickers reduced end-of-term attrition from 8-12% to about 4%.

Improved learning outcomes

  • Caldwell (2007) reports that "Most reviews agree that ‘ample converging evidence’ suggests that clickers generally cause improved student outcomes such as improved exam scores or passing rates, student comprehension, and learning and that students like clickers."
  • Kaleta and Joosten (2007) report that “The statistical analyses of grade data collected for the 11 parallel courses between fall 2004 and fall 2005 showed a statistically significant impact of clicker use on student performance … There was an increase of 2.23% in the number of students obtaining a grade of C or better in the courses that used clickers.”
  • Fies and Marshall (2006) report that “There is great agreement that clickers promote learning when coupled with appropriate pedagogical methodologies … The literature also indicates that clicker-supported environments lead to greater learning gains than traditional learning environments.”

Best practices

As noted above, clickers can be used for simple "administrative" tasks such as taking attendance, as well as more pedagogically oriented purposes such as assessing the degree to which students have understood a lecture, or whether they have read something that was assigned for class. The real impact of clickers, though, pertains to their ability to increase engagement with course content by facilitating peer instruction. Here's how this is typically achieved:
  1. The instructor gives a lecture of seven to ten minutes on a specific topic and then projects a multiple-choice question on a screen for all students to see.
  2. The instructor gives students a minute or two to answer the multiple-choice question using their clickers. The clicker program aggregates the responses and displays them as a bar chart. Ideally, the responses will be spread fairly evenly across the possible answers. The instructor then shows the students the bar chart of their answers.
  3. The instructor  asks the students, in pairs or groups of three, to discuss their answers for four or five minutes. This is where the peer instruction takes place, which leads to greater engagement with the content. 
  4. The instructor then projects the same question on the screen, and students again select an answer with their clickers. The instructor then shows the students the new bar chart. Typically, many more students will have now chosen the correct response. 
  5. The instructor explains why the correct answer is correct. Students are motivated to pay attention, because the peer instruction process has engaged them with the content. 

Skeptics might suggest that more students get the correct answer the second time simply because the "smarter" students told them which answer to unthinkingly select. In other words, no real learning has occurred. However, studies have shown that this is not the case. In these studies, students who engaged in peer instruction were given questions that were similar to the ones that they had discussed during peer instruction; in other words, the new questions required them to apply what they had learned during peer instruction to a different scenario. Students who engaged in peer instruction did better with these questions than other students. They had actually learned via peer instruction. 

The process described above can also be used to conduct two-stage exams. For more information, watch Two-Stage Exams, a video created by the Carl Weiman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia. 

Other best practices for clickers include these strategies:

  • Explain to your students why you are having them use clickers. Some students will have already used clickers in other classes, but some won't. You need to persuade them of the benefits of clickers (specifically, their increased engagement, and your heightened ability as the instructor to assess where they are at in terms of understanding a unit of material), in order to get them on side. After all, they are the ones paying for the clickers, so they need to know what benefits they will derive from them. Watch Explaining to Students Why You're Using Clickers for more suggestions.  
  • Develop effective clicker questions. This in turn means that you need to know why you are using the clickers. For example, when you are using clickers to discern whether students have understood a unit of material, you might want to pose fairly straightforward or "fact-based" questions, ones that will really reveal whether they have "got it." On the other hand, when you are using clickers to foster increased engagement, you probably want to pose questions that are at the "edges" of what you have covered in class, in order to get them to speculate and to push themselves beyond what they already know. Such questions should probably be more abstract, more conceptual, and even more ambiguous than the questions that you pose to merely assess whether they are "getting it." See "Designing effective questions for classroom response system teaching" (PDF).
  • Don't use clickers for high-stakes assessment such as mid-terms. Doing so will merely increase the likelihood of academic dishonesty, such as students peering at one another's clicker buttons, students collecting their friends' clickers and answering on their behalf, and so on. Ideally, clicker questions for the entire course should count for about 5% to 10% of the final grade.
  • Don't use clickers to simply take attendance. Students will resent having to pay money for a device that merely helps to monitor them.
  • Use clickers consistently. Doing so will help integrate the clickers into your course, so that they seem central to it rather than a mere add-on. Three or four clicker questions per contact hour might be a reasonable rule of thumb.
  • Allow clickers to transform your teaching. Many instructors have found that clickers have helped them shift from a "sage on the stage" approach to a "guide by the side" approach; that is, more class time can be devoted to student engagement through questions and discussion. An instructor might, for example, assign a reading in place of a lecture; at the beginning of the next class, the instructor might then test the students on the assigned reading (to ensure that they have completed it); class time can then be devoted to discussion, with the discussion being fed by clicker questions and answers.
  • While students are discussing their responses to a clicker question, use that time to circulate among them in order to listen in on their reasoning. Doing so will help you frame your presentation of the material after the students have discussed it amongst themselves.
  • Visit a class taught by a colleague who has used clickers for a few terms and see how he or she uses them.
  • Have a policy for when students forget to bring their clicker. For example, you might tell them that their two lowest clicker scores for the term will be dropped (that way, forgetting to bring a clicker will not diminish their grade if it happens only rarely).


It is important to consider accessibility when determining whether a technology fits the needs of your class. iClicker has provided information about accessibility considerations when using clickers.

Clickers at Waterloo

Instructors who are interested in acquiring a clicker system should contact their Faculty Liaison.

Related Tools


If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact.




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