why are clicker questions hard to create?

I and my colleagues have, since 2005, been running a large research project that involves giving classroom response systems (CRSs, a.k.a. “clickers”) to middle and high school science and math teachers, spending copious time and energy (and consequently money) helping them to use those systems effectively in their teaching, and studying the heck out of their varied CRS learning experiences. (For more about the project, see its web page. Thanks to the National Science Foundation for funding it — your tax dollars at work via grant# TPC-0456124.)

Of the forty-some teachers we’ve worked with to some degree or another, by far the number one difficulty they’ve reported is the challenge of regularly creating effective clicker questions to use in class. The characteristics that make a question “work” — meaning engage students in quality classroom discussion and promote learning — are not obvious, and typical back-of-the-chapter or quiz-type questions will fail miserably. In the project’s professional development meetings, we’ve spent a great deal of time talking about question creation, and I’ve developed various frameworks in an attempt to help make it more science and less art.

This semester, in prepping my own Conceptual Physics class, I’ve run into exactly the same difficulty. “Today I’m teaching topic X, and I need some good questions. Um, ah, hmm…” Not so easy, even with all the frameworks and such.

One flash of insight I had recently is that, at least for me, it’s not really creating questions that’s tough. The hard part is figuring out what I want my students to learn from the class, and casting that in terms of what I want my students to be able to do. I’ve been trying to shift my thinking from “the material” to “the demonstrable, assessable learning outcomes” (cf. The Myth of Coverage).

Once I can articulate what I would like my students to be able to do after the class, it’s generally relatively easy to invent a few good clicker questions. I just formulate a question asking them to do that (in a particular context), and then much of the class activity is me helping them struggle through the process as they learn how. (This is the principle we’ve called “Question-Driven Instruction”, as articulated in Beatty & Gerace 2009 and elsewhere.)

Which all means that when someone says “Creating good clicker questions is hard”, I’m now inclined to hear that as “Thinking in terms of demonstrable student learning outcomes rather than topic coverage is hard.” And I agree. I also think it’s one of the many desperately needed shifts to how we conceive of this whole enterprise we call organized schooling.

I’m not saying that this is the only difficult aspect of creating good questions, but it’s definitely key for me. I’m curious what others think. If you’ve taught with a classroom response system, what do you think? Does that ring true? Do you have any similar or conflicting experiences to share? Comments are open…

About Ian

Physics professor... science education researcher and evangelist... foodie and occasionally-ambitious cook... avid traveler... outdoorsy type (hiking, camping, whitewater kayaking, teaching wilderness survival skills to high school students, etc.)... amateur photographer... computer programmer and amateur web designer... and WAAY too busy!
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3 Responses to why are clicker questions hard to create?

  1. Derek Bruff says:

    I really like this comment: “I just formulate a question asking them to do that (in a particular context), and then much of the class activity is me helping them struggle through the process as they learn how.” I find that even when I’m not feeling great about a new clicker question I’ve written, I’ll go ahead and ask it, knowing that I’ll *probably* be able to use it to help the students “struggle through the process” even if the question isn’t great.

    I think a lot of instructors who start using clickers do so in order to gather feedback on what their students do or do not understand during lectures. Some have a vague notion of increasing interaction during class, but I think you’ve hit the nail on the head regarding the use of clickers to *engage* not just assess students. When you do so, the clicker question becomes a vehicle for encouraging the kinds of thinking we’d like our students to do.

    Also, it would appear your comments are working again!

  2. Pingback: Best Practices for Writing Clicker Questions

  3. Jeff says:

    Very nice commentary. Thanks for having this still here 2.5 years later for me to find via Google and Derek Bruff!


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