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March 6, 2014

Teaching at Pitt: Click it!


Clickers can transform your classes. They can increase student participation and help you quickly and easily gauge student comprehension.

Clickers, officially known as student response systems, are small, hand-held devices that allow students to respond to questions or prompts posed by the teacher, usually within a PowerPoint presentation. Students click their answers (usually multiple choice), which are automatically combined, and class totals are displayed on the screen, usually in graph format. Clickers are especially useful for quickly assessing whether students understand material during a lecture. They also are useful for in-class quizzes and even for taking attendance. Perhaps most importantly, clickers enable instructors to engage students as they interact with class lectures.

However, like any other teaching strategy, a number of decisions need to be made.

Should I borrow or buy clickers?

Borrowing Turning Technologies clickers from CIDDE’s classroom services is advisable for faculty who are trying out clickers for the first time. More than 200 clickers are available, and they can be borrowed for one week at a time. To borrow a set of clickers, go to Staff in CIDDE’s Education Technology Center can show you how to use the clickers and install and use the software.

If you decide to use clickers regularly in your class, you can require your students to purchase them. The two main clickers used at Pitt are Turning Technologies Audience Response Systems (about $40) and i>Clicker (about $50). An advantage to having students buy clickers is that each clicker has a unique ID number that the student can register. This will give you data on how each student answers questions, which is helpful if using clickers to monitor attendance or for quizzes. This data can be imported into Blackboard. Turning Technologies clicker ID numbers are tied to each student forever, whereas i>Clicker ID numbers can be reset. The University Store will buy back i>Clickers, but not Turning Technologies clickers. Some departments mandate clicker use throughout their program, however,  so students benefit from buying a clicker early on in their academic career.

Integrating clickers with existing technology

With Turning Technologies, you need clickers and a small receiver that plugs into your USB port; with i>Clicker, you need clickers for students (there also is an instructor remote), as well as a receiver that plugs into your computer via USB and flash drive with software that captures the data. You don’t need to buy new software to use clickers in your class.

For Turning Technologies Audience Response Systems clickers, you simply need to download and install TurningPoint (available for both Mac and PC at, a program that integrates clickers into existing PowerPoint slides or any other application (such as Word) and also can be used as a stand-alone polling service.

i>Clicker software is available at This clicker utilizes a toolbar that floats in front of your PowerPoint or other application and allows you to poll the class. It then takes a screenshot of the results as well as captures results though the software. Unlike TurningPoint, it does not integrate directly with PowerPoint, but is used alongside it.

Writing meaningful multiple-choice questions

The trickiest part of using clickers is writing meaningful and effective questions that let you know if your students understand the class material. The No. 1 pitfall is writing questions that are too easy! Make all of your answers plausible, but confirm that only one is correct. The others, called distractors, should be possible answers but clearly not correct ones. Here are some guidelines for drafting questions:

  • Start by asking simple factual questions based on the last lecture. Expect that most of your students should get these correct. The purpose is to tie this lecture to the previous one so that you clearly are building on knowledge previously learned. This will help “prime” students for class.
  • Add some questions about homework or reading assignments to see if students grasped key information. An example: “In last night’s reading, which new theory was discussed?” with possible answers including theories already discussed in the course. However, these questions are not challenging for prepared students and should be limited.
  • As you progress through the lecture, ask questions that challenge your students. Select debates within the field arising out of the material and ask your students some divisive questions that have conflicting responses. When you direct students to answer the question, or “poll” them, you may find interesting fodder for debate. Use responses to such questions to lead students to engage in class discussions.
  • Polling the students on difficult concepts can elicit responses that show many (or even most) students do not understand the material. Asking students to convince their neighbors of the correct response, followed by a re-poll of the class, engages students, and the improvement from collaborative learning is evident immediately. The instant feedback lets you know when more review is needed.

Other tips

  • Clickers should be for informal assessment and comprehension checking, not grading.
  • Allow enough time for students to think about each question and respond. Usually about a minute is sufficient.
  • Provide 3-4 minutes for any discussion arising from a clicker question.
  • Limit the number of clicker questions in a class to 1 or 2 every 10 minutes.
  • Students’ attention tends to wander after about 10 minutes, so use clickers at appropriate intervals to keep students engaged.
  • Make a mock exam for review and have students answer questions using the clickers. Be sure to write questions in the same format as those that will appear on the exam.

Marc Wisnosky is the teaching fellow for CIDDE teaching services and is a PhD candidate in the Department of Administrative and Policy Studies in the School of Education.