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Using Clickers in the College Classroom


Using clickers in the college classroom can foster discussion, make teaching more dynamic, and promote engagement. Explore several options for using this instructional tool, see some steps for getting started, and find out how some faculty have used clickers in their classrooms.

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Using Clickers in the College Classroom

Justina Brown, Instructional & Multimedia Designer,
Center for Instructional Innovation, Western Washington University

College instructors, especially those teaching large lecture courses, often wonder how they can know whether their students are following them during class. Others are troubled by the fact that sometimes a few students monopolize class discussion time, leaving the rest of the students mostly unheard. Others wonder how they could get truly honest answers from students on controversial topics.

In this short movie, Nancy Grayum, Classroom Services Manager at Western Washington University, describes how classroom response systems can be used to answer these questions, and describes some strategies for using them and getting started.


An instructional technology that got its start with hard-wired systems in the 1980s, classroom response systems, also known as “clickers”, have come a long way in terms of reliability, integration with other classroom technologies, and ease of use. The most recent improvement—moving from infrared technology to radio frequency—allows students to use their devices without hindrances from their surroundings.

Some colleges require students to purchase the clickers, while others provide the clickers to courses on a reservation basis. The classroom used must have the system installed—both the software and the receiving device. Once the elements are there, instructors must then develop effective questions to use in their class sessions.

Developing Questions

The best questions address a specific purpose in the class, such as:

  1. Directing attention or raising awareness on certain topics
  2. Stimulating cognitive processes
  3. Gathering feedback
  4. Promoting articulation, debate, and discussion
Using Classroom Response Systems

Most systems support many types of questions — multiple choice, true/false, numeric, series, short answer, and survey. Dependent upon the specific system, the questions can appear directly on a PowerPoint screen which interacts with the installed software and receiving device; questions can also be asked from within the system software, or orally.

Students may need to enter information into the clicker device in order the “join” or login to the session, either anonymously or by using a student ID—whichever the instructor prefers.

In general, the three main steps for using a classroom response system in class are:

  1. an instructor presents a question or problem, often projected on a screen in front of the class;
  2. students have a specific amount of time to input their answers using their clicker device, which will display a confirmation their input was received; and,
  3. instructor and the students instantly view a display charting the distribution of responses.

The instructor will usually have a series of questions prepared, either clustered together or peppered throughout the presentation. Anonymous student responses can immediately be projected for everyone to see and discuss, reviewed to inform the instructional process “on the fly,” or simply gathered for future use. Responses tied to individual students or clicker IDs can also be displayed and additionally, can be automatically saved as a data file for later reporting.

Instructional Strategies

There are many instructional strategies for using clickers in the classroom. The questions or statements can serve to launch discussion, as checkpoints for understanding, or as graded evaluations.

One of the major uses for classroom response systems is to foster discussion. Examples include:

  • Posing a relevant question and sharing aggregated results to warm up for a whole-class discussion
  • Using opinion polling or surveys to analyze the differences and similarities of choices and consider alternative viewpoints
  • Having students think and write about the question first, then discuss with a neighbor before submitting an answer
  • Getting an initial response to a controversial question, having students discuss/debate with their peers, and then repeating the question for a “before and after” comparison

Some instructors have made teaching more dynamic by:

  • Having students work in groups to discuss and vote on the best answer to a problem or dilemma, given some possible yet incomplete solutions
  • Using questions and student feedback to drive every step of the instruction throughout a lecture…or
  • Allowing students to predict the outcome of a demonstration done in class
Promoting Engagement

Above all, by using clickers effectively, instructors can promote students’ participation independent of their temperament: students who are reluctant to speak out in class now have the opportunity to express opinions and provide feedback.

To get started, check with the classroom technology office at your institution. Find out what system is available to you and how your colleagues have used similar classroom response systems. Explore the many resources available online.

In the words of Professor Ian Beatty at the University of Massachusetts, classroom response systems:

“can serve as catalysts for creating a more interactive, student-centered classroom in the lecture hall... They not only make it easier to engage students in learning activities during lecture but also enhance the communication among students, and between the students and the instructor. This enhanced communication assists the students and the instructor in assessing understanding during class time, and affords the instructor the opportunity to devise instructional interventions that target students' needs as they arise.”

—Ian Beaty, Professor
Physics Education Research Group
University of Massachusetts

References and Resources

Please refer to the CIIA's Clickers instructional technology resource page for detailed information about uses of clickers in higher education, online resources, and help documentation.



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