Early in my graduate school career, a decade ago, my major professor decided to pilot an amazing new technology called “clickers.” These promised a wondrous new classroom in which students were continuously engaged and teachers were able to assess student knowledge in real time.

Initially, these miracle systems were adopted by just a handful of the most dedicated instructors. Clickers, or classroom response systems to give them their broader name, were seen as cutting-edge, but in reality they were clunky and difficult to use. The technology was glitchy, and a lack of competition meant that few advanced features were offered.

Luckily, clicker technology has come a very long way in the past eight to ten years, and the use of classroom response systems isn’t all that novel anymore. Mainstream professors, not just the tech-savvy ones, are now using them as an integral part of their classes. Classroom response systems give us the ability to quickly take attendance, assess understanding in real time, increase student engagement and much more, all in a streamlined and user-friendly package.

Even though today’s systems aren’t completely unfamiliar, implementing one in your classroom for the first time takes some strategizing. In this blog post, I want to give you a few key points to consider when you choose a system and when you introduce it for the first time in your classroom.

How to select a classroom response system

Perhaps the most important decision is whether you plan to use a physical clicker (a device that students purchase and bring to class daily), or a newer Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) model.

Both have advantages and disadvantages. Physical clickers often use some sort of base station for gathering data, which involves IT upgrades to install base stations in classrooms, or portable stations that can be handled by the instructor. While this may initially appear to be a pain, it also has the advantage of bypassing the need for a good Wi-Fi network in your classroom. However, the major downside to physical clickers is that they are easy to forget, misplace or break. Meanwhile, students always have their phones with them.

If you decide to go with physical clickers, you will need to think about the following:

  • How will you handle students who forget to bring their device (or charged batteries) to class?
  • Are other professors using the same system, or will students have to purchase and carry multiple devices?
  • Are your classrooms equipped with the technology to capture the responses?
  • How will you avoid cheating (for example, by a small group of students giving their clickers to one person, who attends class and inputs responses for everyone)?

If you decide to go with a BYOD program, you will need to think about the following:

  • What is the price point? Since you aren’t purchasing a physical device, does the student purchase access once, or each semester? If multiple classes use the same program, would the software need to be purchased for each one?  
  • Are you likely to experience issues with network connectivity?
  • How will you avoid cheating (for example, students responding to prompts from dorm rooms or elsewhere)?

Finally, regardless of which system you choose, you will need to consider the following:

  • What is the learning curve for using the software — for both you and for the students?
  • How responsive is the company’s customer support?
  • Is the value of the system worth the price you are asking students to pay? I have known some professors who require students to pay between $25-60 just for the privilege of taking attendance each day. If students are investing in a system, try to use it to its fullest and make it worthwhile.
  • What technology will you need to make the program work? Is it compatible on Mac and PC? Do you need special equipment?

Getting started with a classroom response system

Once you have decided which classroom response system you want to use, the next step is to implement it in your class. This can go badly if you are struggling to answer basic questions or are unsure how you will use the system, apply grading, and so on.

Here are a few key suggestions that can make implementing a classroom response system smoother for you and your students:

  • Take advantage of training. Really. You may think you can figure it out just by “clicking around,” but having an expert walk you through the basics will save you a great deal of time and frustration later. Besides, if you know what you’re doing, you will be more comfortable, and the students will be more comfortable as well.
  • Be explicit about how the response system fits into your class grading scheme. How much of their overall course grade is tied to their responses? Are points earned only for correct responses, or is it participation-based?
  • What is your policy regarding absences and make-up work? If you keep track of excused absences, how time-consuming will it be to re-open items or enter scores manually for absent students? Whatever your decision, make sure it is clear in your syllabus.
  • Provide the students with several links to self-help tutorials, handouts and contact information for customer support. You are not customer service, so make sure the students know where to go for help. Likewise, assure them that someone is ready to fix any issues they may encounter. This will make them feel more comfortable with their grade being dependent on a new form of technology.
  • Demonstrate the system early in the semester, preferably on the first or second day of class. I typically begin with simple demographic questions to get students comfortable submitting responses. This can also double as a great ice-breaker, since you can display the results for the whole class to see.

Although the idea of implementing a classroom response system may seem daunting at first, the effort will pay off in the end. You will see the benefit when you are able to engage with your students on a much deeper level than was possible before.