The in-class response system (or clicker) has become a popular educational tool over the last decade or so. I first used clickers in my previous academic position teaching large (300+ students) introductory chemistry classes in an attempt to increase the lecture attendance, which was frustratingly low across all sections and instructors. By attaching a small, but not insignificant, part of the final grade upon answering in-class clicker questions, I thought it would force students to show up for class. It ultimately had the effect of only marginally increasing attendance. Upon introducing clickers I did not see any improvement in test scores and in end-of-semester student feedback the clicker questions were a non-factor. After my first few attempts of using clickers I hadn’t really seen any increase in engagement.

I did however have a growing concern about the effect of creating too much daily pressure on students by introducing these clicker questions. It has been fairly well documented in recent years that today’s students are increasingly suffering from anxiety and depression. Anxiety naturally builds around testing periods when much of a student’s final grade is determined. So by bringing “micro-tests” in the form of assessed clicker questions into daily lectures, I was aware that I could be increasing the stress and anxiety levels of students. I settled on offering 50% of the clicker grade upon participation and 50% on correctness, hopefully to alleviate some of this potential anxiety. But I was still aware that even this could have a negative impact because of the constant daily testing.

Despite its complexities, I lecture my chemistry classes as if I’m telling a story. There are ebbs and flows. There are times to get into the ‘guts’ of the subject, and there are times to see how this all might apply to the real world. I firmly believe there is an art to teaching, especially lecturing, which relies upon the instructor’s performance in engaging students as much as anything else. So after attending a few “teaching with technology” seminars in my first few years of my career and being told clickers increase student engagement, why wasn’t I seeing the benefits?

One of the drawbacks I found was that clicker questions became an interruption. I tried to insert clicker questions at points where I thought there would be a natural break between topics, or at a section where I needed some content reinforced, but it seemed like wherever I put my questions, my storytelling came to a grinding halt. I eventually started weighing the cost of losing this momentum. Given this, and my other concerns of effectiveness, and the effect on the mental health of students, I started to wonder if clickers were really worth it.

What do we really want from clickers?

Reflection in teaching is a valuable exercise. It enables an assessment of what works in your teaching, and more importantly what doesn’t. When you recognize something isn’t working, you can certainly try to create your own potential solution to test. But sometimes we don’t have to re-invent the wheel if others have already found solutions to the same problem. For me, the start of the solution to my clicker dilemma was in the form of asking myself the question “What do I want to achieve by using clickers?”. My answer was simple: “To increase student engagement”.

The feedback loop that clickers create by allowing instructors to immediately see if students understand content certainly has value, but for me it was not more valuable than the negative things it introduced. But could I really give clicker questions that were not part of a grade? Could I give clicker questions that were not a speed bump in my lecture? Could I give clicker questions that were part of my storytelling? Once I realized the answer to all of these questions was yes, then I had a whole new way of using clickers.

Using curiosity as a teaching tool

Humans are naturally curious. In psychology, curiosity is viewed as a basic human behavior and is there to facilitate learning. Loewenstein (1994) describes curiosity as “a cognitive induced deprivation that arises from the perception of a gap in knowledge and understanding”. As an educator, our jobs are to transfer our knowledge and understanding to our students, but sometimes this transfer is less successful with some students compared with others. If curiosity is a basic human behavior, then perhaps as educators we need to do a better job of not just transferring that knowledge and understanding, but making students aware of their own “gaps in knowledge and understanding” first.

Here’s one simple example of how I do this using clickers and counter-intuitivity (an approach by which students form an incorrect conclusion based upon a gap in knowledge and understanding). This example is used to introduce the topic of heat capacity in general chemistry. I first ask students if they’ve ever eaten pizza. Typically 100% of students reply yes. I display on-screen the clicker results to show they are part of a large unanimous group. I follow by asking if anyone’s burnt the roof of their mouth eating pizza. Typically 100% of students again reply yes, further reinforcing they’re in agreement with their peers upon seeing the results. I then follow with the question “what part of the pizza burnt your mouth?”. With this question I hide the results from students as I don’t want their answers to change upon seeing other student responses. I only want the students’ quick intuitive response. I reliably get about 80-85% of students to respond with “cheese” (which is incorrect – it’s the sauce!) as the answer to what burns their mouth.

Alternatively, I could have simply described a pizza in an oven with the dough, sauce and cheese all having different heat capacities, but through this line of questioning using clickers I have highlighted to the majority of the class a gap in their understanding and knowledge which then feeds their curiosity. After concluding the heat capacity topic, I circle back to the pizza example and ask why the sauce burns their mouth, although I probably don’t have to, as most students have successfully learnt the reason why. I now integrate clicker questions into my lecturing in this way and it has become a seamless, engaging, often entertaining and zero-stress activity that utilizes the students’ own curiosity to facilitate engagement and learning.

[Loewenstein 1994] – G. Loewenstein, The psychology of curiosity: a review and reinterpretation, Psychol. Bull., 116 (1994), pp. 75-98