Designing Effective Clicker Questions by Going Beyond Factual Recall

At one point, a General Chemistry course at Penn State Berks had a success rate of about 50 percent, giving the multi-section course the dubious distinction of having one of the lowest GPAs on campus. After a thorough redesign, the course now consistently achieves a success rate of well over 70 percent, while the student ratings of the course and the instructors have never been higher. The key element in this chemistry course’s redesign? Clickers.

As evidence of the importance of student engagement and active learning continues to grow, clickers have become a powerful tool for helping instructors adopt a more learner-centered teaching style.

During the recent online seminar Using Clickers to Engage Students and Maximize Learning, Ike Shibley, an associate professor of chemistry at Penn State Berks, shared strategies for using clickers in the classroom and offered tips on how to write effective clicker questions.

According to Shibley, while clickers can be used for simple tasks such as taking attendance and testing factual knowledge, by thinking about the types of interactions you want for your students – interactions with the content and each other – it’s easy to begin envisioning how clickers can help create a richer learning experience.

Here are two different types of clicker questions Shibley uses to tap into higher levels of thinking:
Problem-solving questions: Scaffold your questions to allow students to progress through the questions from simple to complex. However, Shibley cautions, don’t make the questions overly complex.

Opinion questions: Assign a reading as homework and then ask students for their opinion on what they read. Getting anonymous feedback, particularly around a controversial topic, is a great way to kickstart or guide discussions.

“Some faculty use clickers for a few minutes of predominantly recall questions, and that’s a great start,” said Shibley. “But to really utilize clickers you’re going to want to spend 10-15 minutes of a 50-minute class where students have to do more than plug in an answer. You want to make it so they have to think awhile, figure something out, stimulate new thoughts.”