Clickers: Beyond the Basics

On Friday, February 5, the Center for Educational Resources hosted the third Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching. For this session, three presenters discussed their experiences using clickers (classroom polling systems).

Logo for Lunch and Learn program showing the words Lunch and Learn in orange with a fork above and a pen below the lettering. Faculty Conversations on Teaching at the bottom.Leah Jager and Margaret Taub, are both Assistant Scientists and Lecturers who co-teach Public Health Biostatistics in the Department of Biostatistics at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. This is a required course for Public Health majors, and regularly sees enrollments of 170 plus students. The course focuses on quantitative methods used in public health research. Jager reported that many students feel intimidated by the math. There is no text book for the course, instead students watch short videos before class meetings.

Jager started the presentation, Clickers in Public Health Biostatiscs, with a hands-on demo where the audience used clickers to answer example questions. A basic use of clickers might include checking class attendance or taking a quick quiz on an assignment. Taub and Jager seek a dynamic classroom environment, using clickers to “provide fodder for interaction between students” and gaining formative assessment of student learning of new concepts being taught. In their teaching, clickers are used daily to promote problem solving and peer discussion. They start with “warm up questions” to review materials from previous classes, then move on to checking newly introduced concepts. Jager showed examples of poll results (these may be called results charts, plots, or histograms) and discussed how she and Taub would respond to situations where it was clear that many students understood concepts or not. When students are not clear on the answer to a question, the instructors have them pair up and discuss the question and their answers. The students re-vote, then Taub and Jager review the concept and correct answer. Even when it is apparent that most students understand the material, the instructors briefly review the question to be sure that no one is left behind.

Example of a case report form used to capture data in course survey. Cocoa Content in Chocolate Tasting Trial.Jager and Taub use clickers for data entry as well (see above), a practice that qualifies as beyond the basics. The JHU clicker system (i>clicker) is integrated with the JHU course management system, Blackboard. Using the survey tool in Blackboard as a data recording form allows the instructors to record student responses question by question. It then takes minimal effort to output a spreadsheet with data that can be shared with the class and used for exercises and assignments.

Emily Fisher, Director, Undergraduate Studies and Lecturer, Department of Biology, uses clickers in her classes (Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Genetics). Her presentation, Clickers Beyond the Basics.  Fisher began with a discussion of what she considered to be basic use. Class timeline showing when clicker questions are introduced in a basic use case scenario.This would include a question at the beginning of class to gauge understanding of a pre-class assignment, a formative assessment question midway through class, and a question at the end of class to “place today’s topic in the bigger picture.” This use encourages students to attend class (if answers count toward grade) and acts as a means to “reset the attention span clock.”

Going beyond the basics Class timeline showing when clicker questions are introduced in a beyond the basics use. Fisher uses clickers throughout the class period to help students evaluate data, understand how biological systems work, and engage in higher level critical thinking by engaging in complex problem solving. She also uses the questions to identify student misconceptions. Using student responses and gauging the results charts allows her to make sure that students don’t get lost as she works through building a model for problem solving. Fisher led the audience through a series of slides (see presentation) demonstrating her process.

Fisher noted that using clickers for teaching higher level problem solving takes time to implement but is worthwhile. She explains to students at the beginning of each course how and why she is using clickers in order to ensure buy-in. By developing a model, students get a preview for the type of thinking that will be required to answer exam questions. Students get to practice in class by articulating answers to peers. Fisher has found that the process motivates student engagement, breaks up the lecture structure with active learning, and allows students to see real-world situations.

In the discussion that followed, faculty attendees expressed concern about the amount of time that clicker questions take away from content delivery. Advice from clicker users was to move some content to videos and outside of class assignments. Quizzing can be used to motivate students to complete this coursework.

Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts & Sciences and Whiting School of Engineer faculty will receive email invitations for the upcoming Lunch and Learn presentations. We will be reporting on all of the sessions here at The Innovative Instructor.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Lunch and Learn logo by Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources. Other images were taken from the presentations by Leah Jager, Margaret Taub, and Emily Fisher.