Clicker Questions that Make Students Think

Conference season came to a quick start and finish for me in June, starting with the Association for Biology Laboratory Education ( conference at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, and ending with the Introductory Biology Project ( conference in Washington, DC. I plan to use the next few posts to describe some of the tidbits I picked up as I prepare for the fall semester.

ClickerI am a big fan of clickers, but by far the biggest challenge for me is writing questions that force students to think deeply about the course material. Typically, a large majority of students get my questions right. Although my students get valuable practice with the material, I feel as though I am missing an opportunity for in-depth classroom discussion.

That’s why I was happy to attend an IBP conference presentation by Dr. Michelle Smith of the University of Maine.  The session’s title was promising (“Using Wrong Answers on Clicker Questions to Get the Right Reactions from Students”), and Dr. Smith did not disappoint.

Of the many great examples and ideas that Dr. Smith presented, the tip that was most helpful to me was to use common misconceptions to craft what she called “tempting distractors.” But how is an instructor to figure out what those misconceptions are? You can listen to your students talk about the material, or you can see what they write about a topic in response to open-ended questions. You can also visit the inventories of common student misconceptions that are already posted online.

Dr. Smith’s talk inspired me to do a little searching, which led me to the AAAS Science Assessment website (  I plan to revisit this site frequently throughout the fall semester as I give my clicker questions an upgrade. In this screenshot you can see that the AAAS site lists misconceptions by broad topics:


[screenshot from]

When you click on a topic, you get a list of key ideas:


[screenshot from]

Within each key idea, clicking on the Misconceptions tab reveals a detailed list, including the percent of students in each age group that holds the misconception:


[Screenshot from,tabs-79/2]

I can now use Dr. Smith’s tips to draft a clicker question that will really make my students think. For example, I just took a few minutes to write the following question, which I plan to try out this fall:

To keep my vegetable garden growing, I have to water it regularly, and the soil needs to be rich in nitrogen and phosphorus. The garden also needs to be in a sunny location. Which of the following statements is true?

A. Water is food for the plants.

B. Nitrogen and phosphorus in soil are food for the plants.

C. The plants use energy in sunlight to make food.

D. Plants have multiple food sources.

Dr. Smith had many other useful tips for using clickers, which I may share in subsequent blog posts. But if you just can’t wait, check out the University of British Columbia clicker resources page, which has lots of links to clicker question collections.

Writing better clicker questions will be my main goal for the fall semester. If you know of other examples of collections of student misconceptions about biology, please take the time to share them.

This entry was posted in Academic conferences, Active learning, Assessment and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Clicker Questions that Make Students Think

  1. Pingback: One Good Clicker Tip | Teaching nonmajors biology

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