How can I get students to have productive discussions of clicker questions?

posted March 15, 2016 and revised January 9, 2017
by Jenny Knight and Sarah Wise, University of Colorado - Boulder

Clicker questions are increasingly being used to stimulate student discussion and provide faculty and students with timely feedback. Research suggests that discussing clicker questions can lead to increased student learning1, and that students exchanging constructive criticism2 can generate conceptual change.

What can you do as an instructor to encourage all students to have productive discussion? We conducted studies of what students say to each other during clicker discussions when instructors use different instructional techniques. Here’s what we and others have learned and how you can apply it in your classroom:

1) Students are actively engaged most of the time during clicker discussions.

In our studies:

  • most students (65-85%) report being engaged in discussing clicker questions
  • groups discuss the content of the question for the majority of the time given
  • introductory biology students generally spent 1-2 minutes discussing questions 

Implications: Clickers are an effective tool for engaging students in discussion, and even a short discussion can generate good ideas.

2) Cueing students to use reasoning prompts better discussion.

In our studies, when instructors:

  • reminded students frequently to use reasoning in discussion
  • and/or showed students video models of students using reasoning

Students were likely to:

  • follow the instructor’s specific instructions
  • exchange fully articulated, logical explanations (in advanced biology classrooms)3
  • discuss their reasons for and against multiple answer choices

Implications: Explicitly model the kind of reasoning you want students to use (we have created a video4 for this, you could create your own or ask your students to act it out). Give a cue before each discussion to help guide students to interact in a specific way. You can vary your cues, such as:

  • “ Share an idea about the answer you chose with your neighbor, even if you are unsure. I’ll ask you to share ideas with the class after you discuss.”
  • “Explain your reasoning, and ask for your neighbor’s reasoning even if everyone in your group agrees”
  • “Find someone who chose a different answer, even from another group, and compare your reasons”
  • “Challenge someone’s reason in a constructive way if you disagree; it helps your whole group learn.”

3) Experienced students can prompt more robust discussions by asking questions.

Undergraduate learning assistants (LAs) or graduate teaching assistants (TAs) are often asked to facilitate discussions in the classroom, and can have positive impacts on student learning5. In our study, students respond in specific ways to their prompts:

  • students were the most likely to offer their reasoning about an answer when LAs asked a direct “Why” question
  • when LAs explained an answer, or even part of it, to the students, the students were likely to end their discussion
  • LAs explained their answer in 50% of discussions, even though they had taken a course on pedagogy 

Implications: LAs must be trained to ask questions, and avoid providing reasons, to better facilitate student discussion. Some training ideas are to:

  • hold a weekly meeting with your LAs and share these findings with them
  • allow LAs to discuss their experiences trying to prompt discussion
  • have LAs role-play facilitating discussions with questions for next class session
  • train graduate TAs6 and instructors to prompt better discussions by asking questions and avoiding providing reasoning.

4) Students can be coached to have better discussions.

Other studies have shown that students can learn to argue better, with training.

  • Students don’t inherently know how to construct an argument7
  • Students can be taught to recognize and use the elements of a good explanation8 (claim, evidence, and logical reasoning)
  • Students get better at reasoning when they keep track of the elements they and others are using9

Implications: Take time at the beginning of the term and throughout the class to train students in how to engage in argumentation.

5) Discussion depends on the complexity of the question, and time given.

Other studies have shown that students can engage in sophisticated discussions10, when given training, time, and effective prompts.

However, in our studies:

  • most discussions did not contain multiple exchanges of complete reasoning.
  • students were given on average between 1 and 2 minutes to discuss their ideas
  • clicker questions were typically about different topics, and varied in their difficulty and cognitive demand 

Implications: If developing student reasoning skills is one of your goals, it may be better to spend more time discussing a single challenging problem or series of questions, rather than holding many short discussions.

6) Reflecting student ideas motivates engagement in discussion.

Other studies have shown that when instructors ask for student ideas and use these in their ongoing instruction, students learn more from whole-class discussion11.

In our study, randomly calling on individual students increased the number of fully articulated, logical explanations articulated, while randomly calling on groups increased the frequency of collaborative reasoning, as well as increasing the use of questioning (of each other). Random calling has additional benefits of generating equitable participation in class12, greater student comfort with participating over time, and more voluntary participation in class13.

Random calling can be done by selecting a number out of a hat, doing a die roll, or using a random number generator to select a group or individual. Ask the speaker to describe why their group selected a particular answer.

Implications: Ask students to develop a consensus answer within their group and hold them accountable for that answer to encourage them to better understand and provide reasoning for their ideas. Randomly call on students12,13 or ask for student volunteer ideas14 following clicker discussion, to show you value students’ construction of understanding.

This Expert Recommendation is a product of the “Investigating Instructional Influences on the Productivity of Clicker Discussions” project. NSF-TUES #1140789


1. Smith MK, Wood WB, Adams WK, Wieman C, Knight JK, Guild NA, Su TT (2009). Why peer discussion improves student performance on in-class concept questions. Science 323, 122-124. 

2. Asterhan, CSC (2013). Epistemic and interpersonal dimensions of peer argumentation: Conceptualization and quantitative assessment. In: M. Baker, J. Andriessen & S. Jarvela (Eds), Affective learning together, 251-272. New York, NY: Routledge, Advances in Learning & Instruction series

3. Knight JK, Wise SB, Southard KM (2013). Understanding clicker discussions: student reasoning and the impact of instructional cues. CBE Life Sci Educ 12, 645–654. 

4. Youtube: Photosynthesis vs Respiration Discussion 

5. Otero V (2006). The Learning Assistant model for teacher preparation in science and technology. American Physical Society Forum on Education Newsletter, 31-35. 

6. Becker E, Easlon E, Guzman A, Molinaro M, Pagliarulo, C (2014). TAs can teach like a boss: Impact of TA led highly structured discussion sections on student outcomes in a large introductory biology course. Poster presented at the Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research meeting, July 2014.

7. Kuhn D (1993). Science as argument: Implications for teaching and learning scientific thinking. Sci Education 77(3), 319–337.

8. McNeill KL, Lizotte DJ, Krajcik J, Marx RW (2006). Supporting Students’ Construction of Scientific Explanations By Fading Scaffolds in Instructional Materials. The Journal of the Learning Sciences 15(2), 153-191.

9. Asterhan CSC (2012). Facilitating classroom argumentation with computer technology. In: Gillies, R (Ed.) Pedagogy: New Developments in the Learning Sciences, 105-129, Nova Science Publishers.

10. Passmore C, Stewart J (2002). A Modeling Approach to Teaching Evolutionary Biology in High Schools. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 39(5), 185-204.

11. Michaels S, O’Connor C (2012). Talk Science Primer. Technical Education Research Center (TERC), Cambridge, MA.

12. Eddy SL, Brownell SE, Wenderoth MP (2014). Gender Gaps in Achievement and Participation in Multiple Introductory Biology Classrooms. CBE – Life Sciences Education 13, 478-492.

13. Dallimore EJ, Hertenstein JH, Platt MB (2012). Impact of Cold-Calling on Student Voluntary Participation. Journal of Management Education 37(3): 305-341.

14. Turpen C, Finkelstein ND (2010). The construction of different classroom norms during Peer Instruction: Students perceive differences. Phys Review Special Topics-PER 6, 020123.