4. Personal response systems (“clickers”)

We have mentioned above the importance for students of interaction during lectures. Interaction is essential to engage and motivate students and, ultimately, to incentivize them to attend classes, especially if lecture recordings are available online.[1] Of course, interaction is not always easy, especially in larger classes. One way to interact with the class involves posing (multiple/discrete choice) questions which students answer by raising their hands or, for more variety of response, coloured cards. While commendable, this approach has at least two drawbacks. First, students' answers are not anonymous and this may affect responses. Second, it is not always easy to extract and record information from a sea of raised hands.

Fortunately, technological advancements include personal response systems that anonymously collect and record the answers of students. A popular system is TurningPoint.[2] Specifically, instructors can embed MCQs in Microsoft PowerPoint presentations which students answer using remote controls (“clickers”) that have been distributed at the beginning of the lecture. These are wirelessly connected to a USB dongle on the lecture theatre PC. The advantages of clickers have been reported by various contributions in the literature. Laurillard (2013) discusses the role that questions, rather than answers, may play in encouraging understanding. Draper and Brown (2004) and Bruff (2009) stress the benefits to students' learning of giving them a more active role.

Figure 10: the PowerPoint command panel enhanced with TurningPoint features.

The software records the answers and produces reports that can be shown and discussed with the class.

Figure 11: the new QT2 handset (on the left) and a smart phone (on the right) showing the result of a poll.

Personal response systems are particularly useful when teaching large classes. Carrying, distributing and collecting a large number of (expensive) clickers may be, however, a little discouraging for many. Recently it has been noted (see Middleditch and Moindrot (2015b)) that an increasing number of students have portable devices (smartphones, tablets and laptops) with internet access during lectures. Recent software developments[3] take advantage of students' own hardware and make the use of clickers unnecessary. Essentially, students are given a web link through which they can provide answers online.

Figure 12: TurningPoint/Responseware on multiple devices.

Personal response systems can enhance a lecture in a variety of ways.[4] Of course, questions are ideal to make the lecture more engaging and interactive.[5] Instructors can ask a question at the beginning to introduce a topic, store the answers provided by students, and then ask the question again at the end of the class to see changes in students' understanding. Questions can be released at the end of a lecture or topic to recap or test students' understanding. Thanks to their anonymity, and new systems that allow free-text input, personal response systems can also collect more varied information from students, including feedback on the lecture.

Peer Instruction

A very interesting way to employ a personal response system is peer instruction (see Crouch and Mazur (2001)). Peer instruction uses structured questioning and small group discussion tasks. This approach has the potential to engage students through discussion. Employing peer instruction, Middleditch and Moindrot (2015b) discuss how personal response systems can facilitate interaction among students during a lecture. Students may be asked to discuss and motivate their answers with peers. The instructors then reiterate the questions and discuss with the class any change in the distribution of answers.

If carefully planned and adequately managed,[6] personal response systems allow instructors to engage students while providing them with useful information, practice and interaction. Well-chosen questions can enhance the lecture material, giving students another level of involvement and giving the lecturer useful feedback. In section 6 we shall discuss how instructors can also use social media to interact with students.

Student surveys report a positive evaluation of the use of clickers. Elliott (2003), in particular, describes a very positive experience related to the use of clickers in an intermediate microeconomics module. Similarly, Middleditch and Moindrot (2015a) point out an increasing use of student-owned devices to access the personal response system and a consistent positive effect in student satisfaction in (year 1 and year 2) macroeconomics modules.


[1] See Simpson and Oliver (2007).

[2] https://www.turningtechnologies.com

[3] There are various platforms in the market that provide solutions that allow students to submit answers using their smartphones/tablets. Among others, instructors can consider Responseware, Socrative and PollEverywhere.

[4] For a collection of case studies see: https://www.turningtechnologies.com/case-studies

[5] See Broussard (2012), Freeman et al. (2007) and Koenig (2010).

[6] Draper and Brown (2004) suggest that spending time carefully developing effective questions is essential to maximise the benefits of a personal response system.