Category: clickers

Teaching students to think like experts – CSUgrit Symposium

I have the pleasure of facilitating a pre-conference workshop at the Cal State University LA Symposium on University Teaching. My thanks to Beverly Bondad-Brown, Cat Haras, and Adrienne Lopez at CSULA’s Center for Effective Teaching and Learning.


I’ll be talking about how to get your students thinking in expert-like ways by using peer instruction (“clickers”). Peer instruction is a powerful, versatile, evidence-based instructional strategy that lets you turn your classroom into, as Ken Bain says in What the best college teachers do, (2004) a place where “students encounter safe yet challenging conditions in which they can try, fail, receive feedback, and try again without facing a summative evaluation.” (p. 108)

Students need opportunities to try, fail, receive feedback, and try again before facing a summative evaluation (Ken Bain, 2004). (Graphic by Peter Newbury)
Students need opportunities to try, fail, receive feedback, and try again before facing a summative evaluation (Ken Bain, 2004). (Graphic by Peter Newbury)

Workshop Resources

  • Here’s a summary (PDF) of the key findings from How People Learn
  • This is a collection of peer instruction questions to critique during the workshop. Watch out – some of these are good and some are bad!


  • Here are the workshop slides.

Any Questions?

[22.365] sphere-itize me, captain

In the terrific book, How People Learn, [1] the authors describe 3 key findings about how people learn, what teachers should do with those findings, and what it might look like in the classroom:

  1. Students come to the classroom, each with their own pre-existing knowledge, experiences, skills, motivations, and resources, that the teacher needs to draw out and work with through student-centered activities.
  2. Expertise in a field involves a deep foundation of facts, concepts, relationships, etc., organized in a conceptual framework that’s optimized for retrieval. Teachers help their students develop their own conceptual frameworks by deciding what needs to be taught and presenting the same concepts in more than one context so that students can make connections between concepts and to their existing knowledge.
  3. Teachers need to teach their students a new skill: how to be metacognitive about the concepts being taught. Students need to learn how to take control of their thinking and monitor their own progress towards success.

Of these 3 key findings, I struggle most with the third. How do you teach students to think about thinking and give them opportunities to try, fail, receive feedback, and try again [2]. I recently gave a number of presentations to my students and others at UC San Diego and asked this question:

Why do instructors ask, "Any questions?"

 Here’s how my audiences voted:


I asked this question in an episode of peer instruction so after they voted, I had them “turn to your neighbor and tell them which one you picked and why.” Through the class-wide discussions that followed, we arrived at these observations and conclusions:

Don’t just do stuff you’re supposed to do. No one picked E. I’m happy to see that no one is just doing things they’re “supposed to do” but instead, they’re thinking about why they do things in class.

Do you mean the intention or what actually happens? Quite a few students said they had trouble choosing because they weren’t sure if I’m asking about the instructor’s intention of asking,”Any questions?” or what actually happens in class. Many agreed that you most often hear, “Any questions?” in the last minute of class when the instructor is wrapping up (or trying to fill the last minute of class.) This is not the time to ask your students for questions: you just signaled the class is over (choice A above) and they’re all leaving to get to their next class. The room is noisy, no one is listening, and if someone does have a question, the instructor might be able to chat briefly but no one other than that one student hears anything.

It’s all about the instructor. Almost everyone picked B (“Can I continue?”) or C (“Do you understand, so I can continue?”) These are pretty good rationales. You have more to cover today and you don’t want to introduce new material if your students don’t understand this stuff. Excellent intentions. I asked my students how long the instructor typically waits after asking, “Any questions?”

3 seconds
1 second
as long as it takes to scan across the room once

We don’t give them enough time. Because standing at the front of a silent room for 3 seconds is uncomfortable. Waiting for 10 seconds is painful. Twenty seconds? By then, the voice in your head is saying, “C’mon, c’mon! I’ve got things to cover!” and you relieve your anxiety with an apologetic, “Okay, well, I’m not going force anyone to talk, so, uh, let’s keep going.”

First, establish that’s it’s okay to ask questions. Here’s what I believe about teaching: I believe it’s my job to make my students brains hurt a little bit. I want to build on what they know and push it further. I want them to have questions, dammit, because if they don’t have any, I wasn’t pushing hard enough. They’re capable of more than I offered. So let’s tell them it’s okay to have questions. Instead of “Any questions?” ask

What questions do you have for me?

Give them time to think. When I ask, “Any ques—“, uh, “What questions do you have for me?” I’m asking each of my students to

  1. scan back over the last 15 or 20 minutes of notes
  2. identify any holes in their understanding
  3. formulate a question whose answer will fill that hole
  4. build up the courage to put up their hand and ask

Guess what? That takes longer than 3 seconds! So give them time to think. Don’t just stand there getting uncomfortable. Walk around, get a drink of water, take the keys out of your pocket that have been jingle-jangling all class, make sure your phone is turned off. Look away so they don’t feel like you’re staring at them, daring them to interrupt your lecture with a question.

And finally, supporting metacognition. Imagine this: imagine changing your intention for asking, “Any questions?” or “What questions do you have for me?” It’s not about you and whether or not you can continue. It’s about your students. This is when you give them an opportunity to stop and think and monitor their own progress towards understanding (choice D in the question above.) That’s a key to learning. This pause is a critical element of the lesson. You plan for it, you initiate it, you give it the time it deserves. When students ask questions, they’re not interrupting your lecture or preventing you from getting through your slides. No, you are giving them an opportunity to practice their new metacognition skills.

Oh, it will sound exactly the same as choices B and C — you’ll stop lecturing and ask, “What questions to you have for me?” — but your intentions, expectations and reactions will be different. Ditto for your students.

And after class, when you ask yourself if you addressed the 3 key findings about how people learn, you can declare with pride and satisfaction, “yep, yep, aaaand yep!”

I’ll do it (I think)! If you’re still anxious about asking, “What questions do you have for me?” and waiting long enough, have a look at these posts I wrote about the 2-minute pause, think-pair-share, and peer instruction. If you’ve got other approaches to asking questions and/or supporting metacognition, I hope you’ll share it with us in the comments.



[1] National Research Council (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition. J.D. Bransford, A.L Brown & R.R. Cocking (Eds.),Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

[2] Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Think-Pair-Share meets Peer Instruction

This Summer, my center is supporting a cohort of 24 graduate students who are teaching for the first time. They’ve participated in our teaching and learning class, The College Classroom, and we strongly encourage them use evidence-based, student-centered instructional activities in their classes.

We work a lot on peer instruction (PI) with clickers so that’s a natural choice. We’re thrilled that 12 of the 24 chose to use peer instruction with i>clickers, in physics, linguistics, engineering, philosophy, marketing, psychology, cognitive science, math, management, and economics.

There were some instructors in visual arts, communications, anthropology and other disciplines who wanted to use PI but didn’t want to use clickers. Their reasons were understandable:

  • it’s a small class (8-10 students) so the instructor didn’t need the reward of participation points to get students to engage. The instructor can just “look ’em in the eye” when they’re not participating.
  • the students’ cost of buying a clicker
  • the overhead of having to learn the software (and how to make it play nice with the UCSD course management system). They’re teaching for the first time, creating all content from scratch, without a TA to mark essays, in a compressed, 5-week course that meets twice a week for 3-hour classes.
  • the desire to pose more open-ended questions where there is neither a right answer nor 3-5 common responses. Questions like, “Do you the person who painted this picture was a woman or a man? Why?” (Sure, you could make that a clicker question “Do you think a woman or a man painted this? A) woman B) man” but that’s just a survey and you don’t need clickers for that.)

I met with each instructor before they started teaching to talk about their plans. One instructor in Visual Arts suggested using think-pair-share. That’s got a lot in common with peer instruction. Actually, since TPS has been around for ages, peer instruction has a lot to thank TPS for. In TPS, recall

  1. the instructor poses a thought-provoking question
  2. students think on their own
  3. students pair with neighbors to discuss their thoughts
  4. students and the instructor share the thoughts in a class-wide discussion

Let’s compare that to a good episode of PI in a discussion-based class. That’s one where every choice in the question is plausible and the goal of the activity is to get students to pick a prompt they’re comfortable with and explain it to their neighbors, citing evidence when possible. That is, there’s no “convincing your neighbor you’re right” because all the answers are right. Okay, so here’s what PI looks like:

  1. the instructor poses a thought-provoking question with 2-5 conversation starters for choices
  2. students vote using their clickers
  3. instructor says, “Hmm, really interesting to see you choosing different prompts. Please turn to your neighbor, tell them why you picked the choice you made. Support your choice with evidence from the readings.”
  4. the students pair and discuss
  5. there is NOT a 2nd vote – no one is expected to change their minds. The discussion was a chance to summon the evidence and practice putting together an argument.
  6. the instructor leads a lively, class-wide discussion drawing out the students’ evidence for each of the prompts

My colleague and historian, Heidi Keller-Lapp, adds one more step. When she’s preparing the class, she adds a slide after the PI question with a list of all the points she wanted to cover via the PI question. After step 6, Heidi

  1. flips to the discussion points slide, goes down the list, “Yep, we talked about this and this and this and, oh, we didn’t mention this. Okay, remember…. Good, and this and this. Great! Terrific discussion, everyone.” This can take 20  minutes in Heidi’s class. That’s 20 glorious minutes of students thinking critically and making arguments with evidence.

What makes peer instruction effective?

There are a couple of necessary, though not sufficient, components of effective peer instruction.

  • students must think on their own and commit to an idea. That’s critical for learning because they need something to talk about, something to contribute to the “turn to your neighbor” and something to XOR their neighbor’s thinking against.
  • students engage more when they know they’re accountable. Participation points – points for clicking – are a good way to support this. A few points go a long way.

And that’s what is often missing in TPS unless the instructor has the presence and respect of the students to get them all to engage each time. In TPS,

  • students don’t need to commit: they can look at the prompts and think, “Hmm, a couple of those look plausible,” wait until their neighbor starts talking, and then respond, “Yeah, that’s totally what I was thinking, too.” They can get away with it.
  • so what if a student doesn’t pick a prompt? What’s the instructor going to do about it? Cold-call on students? That’s not TPS anymore; it’s anxiety-inducing, imposter-syndrome-reinforcing arm-twisting. Ask for students to raise their hands? Sure, and the same 3 students answer (and I don’t have to talk, ever, if I don’t want to.)

Introducing TPS/cards

indexcards Okay, back to Vis Arts. When we brainstormed how to do peer instruction without clickers (What’s that you say, use ABCD voting cards? Two words: card fade. And see 5 below), we stumbled onto a variation of TPS that, I believe, resolves these weaknesses by borrowing from PI:

  1. the instructor poses a thought-provoking question. It can be open-ended. It can be multiple-choice. It can even be “Draw a picture of…” or “Sketch a graph of…” Whatever the instructor decides will provoke the best discussion.
  2. students think on their own and write their thoughts on 3 x 5 inch index cards that the instructor distributes every day. By writing on the card, students commit to one of the choices. (Bonus: writing!)
  3. students pair with neighbors to discuss their thoughts, referring to their index cards as necessary
  4. students and the instructor share the thoughts in a class-wide discussion
  5. at the end of class, students hand in their index cards (after writing their names on them). The instructor uses these cards to award participation points. Yes, this takes time that scales with the size of the class. But does flipping through a stack of cards, putting tally marks on a class list, really take that much longer than syncing your clicker software with course management system (don’t forget, there is no frustrating, pull-your-hair-out battle with freakin’ Blackboard! Arrggghh! at the beginning of the term.)

Super Bonus: Education Research

Like any experimental teaching and learning activity, we need to ask, “But did it work?” We have a post-course student survey that probes deeply how student perceived and learned from peer instruction, and we’re running essentially same survey in these TPS/cards classes with “peer instruction” search-and-replaced with “think-pair-share.” I’m really  excited to see how the courses taught with TPS/cards turn out.

Double Super Bonus

The instructor kept all the index cards from her classes, in chronological order. She’s going to run some content analysis on the students’ thoughts to see if, for example, their thinking grew more sophisticated and expert-like as the course progressed. An awesome teaching-as-research project!

 Your thoughts

What do you think? Have I missed something critical about PI or added something harmful to TPS? Is this something school teachers have been doing for decades and HigherEd is only now re-inventing it? What research question would you try to answer if you had a record of what your students  were thinking throughout the term? All ideas welcome!