The rise and rise of clickers in chemistry

As recently as 2008, a review of clickers in Chemistry Education Research and Practice had difficulty finding reports of their use in chemistry lecture rooms. In the intervening years, the increase in usage has been nothing short of meteoric. It’s interesting to survey the recent literature to consider how clickers are used in chemistry.

Simple response

The first category is those who use clickers in a simple check of the class’ understanding of a topic – do they know x? King (JCE, 2011, doi: 10.1021/ed1004799) describes the use of clickers to allow a class to identify the ‘muddiest point’, with the most common cause of difficulty being the subject of a review in the following lecture.

Initiate class/peer discussion

The second type of usage is to use clickers to gauge opinion from the class, often on a misconception, and use the initial class responses as a basis for discussion, with possible reassessment. Wagner (JCE, 2009, 86(11), 1300) describes the use of clickers in this manner, for example in asking students: which of the following substances has the ID(50) value? [aspirin; DDT; nicotine; caffeine; ethanol]; and initiating a subsequent class discussion based on the student responses. Mazur’s Peer Instruction is based on this approach.

Considering sequences

Ruder and Straumanis have a very nice paper (JCE, 2009, 86(12), 1392) on using digit response function in some clicker handsets so that students may input a sequence. Two examples illustrate the concept. in the first, students have to select which two precursors from two lists of reagents (in this example Michael donors and acceptors) they would choose in order to prepare a desired product. In their second example, students are asked to select the reagents they would add, in the correct sequence, to produce a desired product. These questions offer two advantages; they allow for a much larger set of possible answers and so minimise a lucky guess and they require students not only to know an answer, but to consider that answer in the context of a total problem. Clickers which do not allow numerical answers can still consider this approach – several more incorrect answers can be easily generated, and if clever, common wrong answers can be included. In fact, the authors say that they only show the responses to the top few most common incorrect answers.

This approach is also used by these authors to test students on curly arrow mechanisms – carbon atoms in a diagram are numbered, and students can describe their understanding of the mechanism by entering multiple-digit responses to represent a mechanism. It’s clever, but some of the very extensive models described seem a bit elaborate to expect students to be able to “code” their curly arrow mechanism into numbers. However, it shows how far the technology could be pushed. A similar approach using numbered carbons on complex organic structures as a basis for numerical entry is described by Flynn in her work on teaching retrosynthesic analysis (JCE, 2011, doi: 0.1021/ed200143k).

What and why?

My own use of clickers follows Treagust’s work (e.g. CERP, 2007, 8 (3), 293-307), where he asks students two-stage multiple choice questions. The first is a simple response, and the second is asking students to select why they chose that response. This work by Treagust is very clever, as it allows students who may know or guess the correct answer to really challenge themselves on their understanding of why they know what they know. The wrong answers in Treagust’s work are developed from literature reports of misconceptions. He has been very generous in sharing examples of these in the past.

In the lab

My colleagues Barry Ryan and Julie Dunne completed some work using clickers to assess pre-and post-lab activities. You can find out more about that here.

Do you use clickers? If so, I’d be interested to hear how in order to compile a “Chemist’s User’s Guide”.

5 thoughts on “The rise and rise of clickers in chemistry

  1. I greatly admire the pedagogical rigour with which you attempt to address this Michael. I use Turning Point clickers and have experimented with using them alongside the Turning Point iOS app.
    I use them in a very simple fashion to probe understanding but more frequently simply to encourage active engagement.
    The reason I am commenting is to share a rather informative experience.
    We issued clickers to our cohort of ‘chemistry majors’. I began to use them only to discover that many of the student were not chemistry majors and were being excluded. Needless to say I stopped using clickers.
    Despite not having the physical devices I left the questions I had designed in. We then improvised other means to share answers. The whole process remained successful in furthering participation and my stance was well received by the whole student body (even the chemists). The point (again) is it’s not about the technology it’s about the engagement process.
    What I believe is great about what you are doing is not the use of technology but the care you are taking in designing the questions. How will you separate those two variables in your study?

  2. I use clickers when teaching statistical mechanics and molecular dynamics. One of the stat mech courses is about 200 students, so peer instruction is the only real way of engaging them in any kind of discussion.

    The other courses are attended by ca 20 students, and here I can engage them in discussions with me. Here I find that when I use clicker questions I get more participation from the less confident students. The voting process gives them more time to think about the answer, and it is easier to volunteer and explain an answer when you know 80 % of the class thinks you are right.

    If possible, I try to generate questions related to simulations. See here for examples:

    But I also use it in problem solving and what you called “simple response”. I hope to post examples of that too, soon. Probably here:

    I don’t use actual clickers, but There is a similar site,, which I haven’t tried yet.

  3. best idea I’ve seen (but most intensive) was in an engineering lecture where the class answered Qs throughout that directed the course of the rest of the lecture in a “choose our own adventure” style … of course the problem is you need to prepare (number of answers)^(number of questions) slides!

  4. Thanks all for responses.

    Simon, yes my feeling backed up with some reading is that it is the discussion that clickers can generate along with feedback that is advantageous. You might be interested in an approach I heard Mauro Mocerino talk about earlier this year. He uses the POGIL system (a US term!) with one clicker is given to three students. With any question, the students have to decide on an answer in their groups. Following an initial display of answers received, students again discuss whether they want to change their answer. The process facilitates discussion, and he selects three as that is the number that can conveniently talk to each other in a traditional lecture theatre. Whatever about the POGIL aspects, I liked that idea of group answers; and it means a smaller number of clickers are provided.

    Jan thanks for your links – technically impressive as always 🙂 It’s interesting to see how you use polling in a series of lectures. Good point too about students being more confident to express a right answer in class.

    Declan – you don’t like simplicity do you?!! 🙂 It reminds me of one of those crime novels where you got to choose where to go next. Nice idea though (and might suit a Prezi!!) I guess you might be able to whittle it down to a couple of scenarios regardless of choice but sounds like lots of work!

    Thanks again!

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