One Good Clicker Tip

The end of the semester is not a great time to introduce a tip for using clickers; I am sure this post would have been more useful in January! But I can’t control when ideas for blog posts drop into my email, and I received a good one recently.

It’s an article called Clicking Your Way to Flipping Your Class, and it appears in Tomorrow’s Professor—an excellent resource for professors in any discipline. The Tomorrow’s Professor article that recently landed in my inbox is a reprint of an article that originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of the newsletter of the Federation of European Biochemical Societies (

iclicker2 on notebook

iclicker2, ready for action. (Photo by M. Hoefnagels)

I’m not a big classroom flipper myself, but I am madly in love with clickers. What I like about the “Clicking Your Way…” article is its subject, clicker-based peer instruction. While I don’t follow the author’s methods to the letter, the article reminded me of one of the ways I use clickers in my class. (You can read about another way that I like to use clickers here: “Pointless” clicker questions.)

I use the iClicker2 and enjoy watching the LCD display at my computer as the students’ answers roll in. The display shows how many students have selected each answer choice in real time. If the question is easy or if the students have mastered the material, then I don’t spend a lot of time giving feedback on the question. Here’s an example like that:

What is the charge on an electron? (a) Neutral; (b) Negative; (c) Positive; (d) Depends on the element; (e) Depends on the isotope.

This question comes in the context of a series of questions designed to help students through the difficult concept of polar covalent bonds. Nearly everyone (98%) in my last class got this question right. I could replace it with a more challenging one, or I could keep it in and consider that point to be a cheap-and-easy, morale-boosting reward for participation. So far, I have opted for the latter.

For a more difficult question, the display often reveals that the class is split between two (or rarely, three) choices. Those are my favorite questions because they offer an opportunity for students to learn by teaching each other. Here’s an example of such a question; it requires students to enter a number into their clickers (yet another reason to love iClicker2), but it could easily be converted to a multiple choice question:

How many of the following processes actually exist AND produce two cells that are virtually identical to the original cell?

  • Meiosis in bacteria
  • Meiosis in animals
  • Meiosis in plants
  • Mitosis in bacteria
  • Mitosis in animals
  • Mitosis in plants
  • Binary fission in bacteria
  • Binary fission in animals
  • Binary fission in plants

The most popular answers are 3, 4, and 6 (the correct answer is 3). As the students enter their answers, I keep an eye on the display. I usually do one of two things if less than ~70% of the students are getting the question right. I may stop the polling (without showing the histogram) and say something like this: “Explain to your neighbor why you selected the answer you did.” After a minute or two of discussion, I poll the same question. Alternatively, I may choose the slightly quicker strategy of keeping the polling going while I tell the students something like “OK, most of you are choosing 3, 4, or 6. One of those is the correct answer. Pick one and explain your choice to your neighbor.” Either way, without any other intervention from me, student performance on the question typically improves.

I am always on the lookout for clicker questions that actually make students think. The blog post I linked in the previous sentence has one example of a good site for clicker resources, and here are some clicker questions from the University of Colorado Science Education Initiative.

Happy clicking!




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