Perhaps the toughest part of teaching is getting students actively engaged in class, particularly in large classroom settings. One solution comes through the use of "clickers," small handheld units that students use to respond to questions in class. The teacher plugs a receiver into the classroom computer and uses the accompanying software to record student answers while asking questions in class, often in conjunction with PowerPoint slides. With a little practice, the process can become fairly seamless during the lecture, students get engaged by answering questions, and the teacher ends up with valuable data about student understanding. Here are a few specific ways these devices can be useful.

Real-time assessment of understanding
During the course of a lecture, the teacher can ask a series of questions to gauge student understanding of a topic. Students click in their answers, and within a few seconds, the results are available in the form of a bar chart. If most students answered correctly, the teacher can move onto the next topic. If enough students answer incorrectly, material can be reviewed as needed.

Discussion and re-clicking
Rather than identifying the correct answer immediately after students click in, the teacher can engage students in discussion about why they selected a particular answer. After a bit of discussion or debate, the question can be posed again, giving students a chance to select a different answer based on the new information or challenges provided. Then the correct answer can be revealed and the underlying concepts explained.

Paired or group answering
A further level of interaction among students can be fostered by having pairs or small groups of students discuss particular questions before they answer. This discussion forces students to negotiate, justify, and defend their answers—a process that encourages active and critical thinking. Teachers using clickers have reported that this approach leads to friendly competition within the class as groups try to outdo one another.

Quizzes and self-tests
While these devices lend themselves to quick, embedded assessments during the course of a lecture, they can also be used to give in-class quizzes. High-stakes testing is not recommended, but short quizzes can encourage reading or help students get a handle on which concepts they understand and which they should study more.

Anonymous polling
In some classes, it is important to gather information from students about certain opinions, perceptions, or behaviors—think about asking how many students in a health class have engaged in binge drinking or used illegal drugs within the past month. We cannot ask for a show of hands in those cases, but students can answer honestly and confidentially with clickers, leading to class discussion about the patterns that are revealed. Many clicker systems have an anonymous mode that keeps even the teacher from knowing how individuals answered, but if that mode isn't available, simply asking students to swap clickers with someone nearby provides the desired level of anonymity.

Class attendance and participation bonuses
Many of these clicker-based activities can also be used for taking attendance; if students answered questions, they were there (although there is always the potential of clicker-loaning, as well as for clever ways to defeat it). Some systems, like i>clicker, allow teachers to designate how many points—or fractions of a point—to provide for simply answering the questions, along with a bonus for answering correctly. This allows for attendance to be taken, points to be given for participation, and a bonus to be given for careful preparation.

Connections to Blackboard and Gradebook
Most clicker systems can input class rosters and output student results to course management systems like Blackboard, and generic report formats (e.g. CSV files) can usually be imported the Ball State's Web Gradebook. This allows teachers to provide points for in-class clicker activities, then transfer data over to their online gradebook programs.

Things to consider when implementing clickers

  • Make sure clicker use is fully integrated into how you run the class, not just as a few added-on questions. Use the clickers as a way to get at student thinking, not simply whether or not they get the right answer.
  • Use clickers consistently from the start of the semester in order to demonstrate their importance… and to let students feel like they are getting their money's worth (they typically cost between $20-40).
  • Practice using the clicker software beforehand so your lectures are relatively seamless. The key is to keep the students' focus on the ideas and concepts, not the technology. ITAS has some demo units from i>clicker, so see if we can loan you a few extra clickers for a practice session. 
  • Have policies in place for lost or forgotten clickers; it is certain to happen sometime during the semester.
  • See if your textbook comes with clicker-ready question banks or if the book can be ordered with a clicker combo.  But get familiar with the clicker system and don't adopt one based entirely on this combo deal.
  • Ball State University has adopted i>clicker as our officially supported student response system. That means faculty members using this technology are encouraged to use i>clickers, but you are still free to use other systems if they better meet your needs. ITAS provides training support to faculty members using i>clicker in their courses. See our i>clicker page for specific information.

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