Clickers (also known as Personal Response Systems) are small, handheld units that are intended to increase student participation and engagement in class by allowing students to easily 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 student engagement with course content.
The "traditional" clicker system is made up of the individual handheld clickers (which the students operate), a wireless receiver (which collects the responses from the students), and software (which aggregates and creates bar charts of the student responses). More recently, clicker functionality has been achieved via apps that students access via their smart phones or other mobile devices.
Typically, an instructor displays a multiple choice question on a screen and gives the students a few minutes to think about it; students then indicate their answer by means of their clickers. The students' answers are instantly aggregated and a bar graph of the results is displayed.
Clickers can be associated with specific students, so that responses to the multiple-choice questions can be associated with the owner of the clicker. However, clickers can also be used anonymously; that is, there is no association between specific clickers and specific students.
At the University of Waterloo, approximately 5000 students use clickers every term. The brand of clicker that the University of Waterloo has chosen is the iClicker. iClicker offers the handheld clicker pictured above, an online service, and an app named iClicker Cloud/Reef, which can be used with student-owned devices like laptops and smart phones. Other brands include TurningPoint and Qwizdom. An app for smart phones and other mobile devices that emulates clicker functionality is Top Hat.
The benefits of clickers include:
- Clickers can be used to quickly take attendance.
- Clickers can be used to give in-class quizzes at the end of a lecture so that the instructor can assess whether students have understood the content.
- Clickers can be used to give in-class quizzes at the beginning of a class to ascertain whether students have read something that was assigned for class. This can help to support the flipped classroom.
- Clickers can be used to facilitate peer instruction.
Evidence of efficacy
- The instructor gives a lecture of seven to ten minutes on a specific topic.
- The instructor projects a multiple-choice question on a screen for all students to see.
- 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 shows the students the bar chart of their answers.
- The instructor then 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.
- 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.
- 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
The brand of clicker used at the University of Waterloo is the iClicker. Instructors who are interested in acquiring a clicker system should contact their Faculty Liaison. Students can refer to our teaching tip, Clickers: A How-To for Students, for more information.
For guidance in designing effective clicker questions and clicker best practices, please contact Paul Kates x37047 in CTE.
For technical assistance, such as setting up clickers in the classroom or integrating clickers with integration with LEARN, please contact Tammy Marcinko x41935 in IST.
University of Waterloo LEARN help pages
- Student Response System (iClicker/Cloud/REEF) (help for instructors)
- iClicker/REEF Polling - Students (help for students
Caldwell, J.E. (2007). Clickers in the large classroom: current research and best practice tips. CBE, Life Sciences Education, 6(1), 8-20.
Kaleta, R., & Joosten, Y. (2007). Student response systems: A University of Wisconsin system study of clickers. Educause Center for Applied Research Research Bulletin, 10, 1-12.
Fies, C., & Marshall, J. (2006). Classroom response systems: A review of the literature. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 15(1), 101-109.
CTE teaching tips
CTE teaching stories
- Engage. Click. Discuss. A YouTube video of a session on clickers that took place at the University of Waterloo in 2016.
- Many educators have developed collections of "clicker questions" (also known as "conceptests") and freely share them with other instructors. For example, the University of Colorado has collections of clicker questions for Physics; the University of Wisconsin has collections of clicker questions for Chemistry; the University of British Columbia has clicker questions for Biology. To find more, do a Google search for "conceptests" and the name of your discipline.
- Classroom Response System ("Clickers”) Bibliography by Derek Bruff, Director, Vanderbilt Center for Teaching (includes over 250 entries of both general and subject-specific articles)
- How to Use Clickers Effectively, a ten-minute video from the University of Colorado Science Education Initiative
- Clicker Resources developed by the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia.
- Seven Things You Should Know About Clickers (PDF), from the Educause Learning Initiative
- Beatty, I. D., Gerace, W. J., Leonard, W. J., and Dufresne, R. J. (2005). Designing effective questions for classroom response system teaching (PDF). American Journal of Physics, 74(11), 31-39.
- Hoffman, J. (March 2012). Speak up? Raise your hand? That may no longer be necessary. The New York Times.
This Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Clickers. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.