The Clicker Session & Classroom Response Systems

Journal Club Article: Shapiro, A. M., Sims-Knight, J., O’Rielly, G. V., Capaldo, P., Pedlow, T., Gordon, L., & Monteiro, K. (2017). Clickers can promote fact retention but impede conceptual understanding: The effect of the interaction between clicker use and pedagogy on learning. Computers & Education, 111, 44-59.

Audience response system App

It is important to fully understand the effect on learning of clickers, and the conditions in which it is beneficial, and best practices for instructors using different pedagogical styles. The aim was to determine whether clicker-enhanced fact retention and conceptual understanding. The study also looked at the overall pedagogical approach used by the instructor, assignments or activities required outside of class meetings, and the instructor’s learning goals for students.


Little work has been done to isolate the effect of clickers on conceptual understanding in courses that do not also provide other scaffolds for deep learning.

Evidence Base

The evidence for the effect of clicker questions on factual knowledge gains is fairly compelling, though the evidence for improvement of deeper, more conceptual understanding is less clear. Just in case anyone is jumping up and down saying that clickers work, see references below for a more balanced look at this.

Shapiro et al. (2017) state that “clickers may not particularly help students who possess attitudes and skills that effectively promote learning. Because those students will tend to engage in activities that lead to deep understanding and retention of material, it is likely they will do equally well with or without clickers. Contrarily, we would expect students who had attitudes and learning habits that are less effective for learning to be helped by clickers.”

The Study

  • The research was conducted in a live classroom.
  • A total of 858 undergraduate students over four consecutive semester in an introductory to biology subject.
  • No students declined participation. How you may ask, well a small amount of extra credit was offered in each course for completing a survey about learning habits and behaviors, and students were offered the opportunity to earn the extra credit through an alternative assignment should they choose to opt out of the study. No students declined participation.
  • Four conditions were developed to test the study’s hypotheses. Two of the conditions directly tested clicker effects, as they involved presenting students with clicker questions designed to probe information needed to answer specific exam questions. The other two conditions were controls. The simple control was a simple “do nothing” control condition, while the enhanced control condition directed students’ attention to the importance of the relevant material while refraining from offering clicker questions.


“In sum, the results support our first hypothesis and replicate prior studies that report factual and conceptual clicker questions increase factual knowledge retention over a simple control condition. Our second hypothesis, that conceptual clicker questions will enhance conceptual exam question performance, was not supported. Our third hypothesis, that student variables would mediate clicker effects, was partially supported by the analysis of deep learning strategies. Specifically, we found that clicker questions brought overall exam performance of students who do not employ deep learning strategies to the level of their deep strategy-using peers. Thus, we have shown that clicker questions have differential effects depending on students’ learning orientation.”


Clickers can promote fact retention but impede conceptual understanding.  Students can make the mistake of familiarity over knowing subject matter or overestimate their actual level of understanding.

Practical Stuff

Like anything in education, it seems to be if the situation warrants then give it a try but just don’t over do it by using the same approach in every session. Mix it up in the delivery method to suit the learners, content, resources or environment needs. If something encourages engagement and interest, then give it a try. Find some free software or borrow a system to give it a try to see the response. There are also many ways to deliver audience responses, just consider your budget and assess which suits your needs, environment and class size first.

References (for clickers improving student learning)

Bruff, D. (2010). Multiple-choice questions you wouldn’t put on a test: Promoting deep learning using clickers. Essays on Teaching Excellence, 21(3).

De Gagne, J. (2011). The impact of clickers in nursing education: A review of literature. Nurse Education Today, 31(8).

DeBourgh, G. A. (2008). Use of classroom “clickers” to promote acquisition of advanced reasoning skills. Nurse Education in Practice, 8(2), 76-87.

Fifer, P. (2012). Student perception of clicker usage in nursing education. Teaching and Learning in Nursing, 7(1), 6-9.

Zurmehly, J., & Leadingham, C. (2008). Exploring student response systems in nursing education. CIN: Computers, Informatics, Nursing, 26(5), 265-270.