Clickers in the Social Sciences (#clicker series)

by Stephanie Chasteen on April 22, 2013

400px-P_sociology.svgClickers are a natural fit for use in the physical sciences, where there is typically one right, or “best” answer to a question, and common errors in conceptual understanding or reasoning can lead to a wrong answer choice.  But what about in other disciplines, such as the humanities and social sciences?

 A nice recent article by Hoekstra and Mollborn (“A Meeting of the Minds:  Using Clickers for Critical Thinking and Discussion in Large Sociology Classes,” Teaching Sociology, 38(1), 18-27, 2010) addresses this question in sociology.   They have also created a nice guide: ” A Practical Guide to Implementing Clickers in the Sociology Classroom“, which you can download.
These folks are from my intellectual camp — starting with the learning goals of their sociology course, they ask how clickers can be used to generate the critical thinking and critiques of sociological methods that will lead to student achievement of their learning goals.  While I would argue that many of these learning goals are also applicable in the natural sciences, it is a very nice article aimed at social science instructors to demonstrate how this tool can help improve student engagement in their classes.

Beyond concept-tests…

They found that when they asked students fact-based questions, that the students “worked hard at answering these questions, but they seemed intensely focused on getting the correct answer at the expense of thinking critically about the concepts they were applying.”  The resulting classroom felt “examination oriented,” rather than explorative.  They came to the conclusion that this type of question didn’t actually address the course learning goals in sociology. I, again, would argue that it also doesn’t address the learning goals in the natural sciences — we want our students to be able to reason through physical concepts and apply them, not just  get the right answer.  However, there does seem to be a critical difference here.  Their “fact-based” questions (my words, not theirs) were oriented towards correctly applying sociological theories and concepts.  In the physical sciences, this *is* what we mean by “reasoning” — the correct answer is only attained through critical thinking about how a particular concept applies in a specific situation.  This is why clicker questions in physics can be so tricky.  Below is an example of such a question (credit to
Correct reasoning would be that dropping the bottle will cause the pressure on the water in the bottle to drop to zero, so that the water doesn’t pour out (D).  So, critical thinking in the sciences will lead to a proper application of the principles of pressure, so this conceptual question can help students wrestle with difficult concepts.
In sociology, however, “correctly applying sociological theories and concepts” must not lead to the same sort of reasoning.  Discussion, evaluation, and critique of key concepts are the hallmark of learning in the social sciences and humanities.  So, how to accomplish this in a large lecture, and how can clickers help?

Encouraging critical thinking and discussion

The authors used short lecture segments along with group discussions, instructor clarification, and clicker questions.  These clicker questions were intended to “promote critical sociological thinking,” and to “move beyond a ‘problem-based’ model.”
They used several types of clicker questions:
  1. Reading quiz questions, to teach students to identify major themes
  2. Opinion questions, to initiate discussion and encourage critical thinking about course concepts
  3. Past experience questions, to use students as a sociological data set, relate materials to personal data, compare personal experience to the rest of the class, or to assess sociological theories by examining class data.
  4. Concept test-style questions (of the type that were found to lead to a more examination-like atmosphere), to encourage students to solidify their knowledge by applying concepts or theories to new situations
They gave some examples of such questions, which I reprint here:
Reading quiz question:

In the reading, what gender combination led to the lowest likelihood of negotiating, as well as a poor evaluation if the job candidate does negotiate?

  1. Female evaluator, female candidate
  2. Female evaluator, male candidate
  3.  Male evaluator, female candidate
  4. Male evaluator, male candidate
Opinion question:

How much do you personally think cultural factors explain differences in evidence of violent behaviors between men and women?

  1. Not much at all
  2. A little
  3. They are sometimes useful
  4. They explain most of what we see
  5. Don’t know/other
Past experience question

When you were growing up, which of your parents earned the most money?

  1. Don’t have two opposite-sex parents/one or both didn’t work/varied from year to year
  2. Dad usually earned a lot more
  3. Dad usually earned a little more
  4. Mom usually earned a little more
  5. Mom usually earned a lot more
Concept test-style question:

Does the sex labeling of occupations affect supply-side gender discrimination, demand- side gender discrimination, or both?

  1. Supply side only
  2. Demand side only
  3. Both (correct answer)
  4. Neither
  5. Don’t know/other

I found their discussion of their use of the personal experience questions to be particularly rich and interesting, and to highlight how different clicker use can be in sociology.  In physics, we might ask a personal opinion or experience question to help students to relate their experience to real life, but in sociology, the subject matter of the course is real life.  So, much like a demonstration or lab in physics gives students tangible experience with the subject of the course, personal experience questions can use students as a rich data set to demonstrate or cast doubt upon theories of how people work.  Here is an example:

We asked students to use clickers to identify their race.  Because the 2000 U.S. census question design did not include the term Hispanic or Latino/a in the question about race, we were able to use this question to prompt in-class discussion about the social construction of racial and ethnic categories.

Sample Class

The authors also outlined a sample class to demonstrate how this would work in practice:

  1. 5-minute lecture segment on household labor
  2. Large group discussion to define household labor
  3. Past-experience question on students’ households (see above) and division of labor
  4. Large group discussion of gender inequality in household labor
  5. 10 minute lecture on human capital explanations for division of labor
  6. Concept test question to test students’ understanding by applying to new situation, where woman outearns the man
  7. Opinion question on how useful students think that the human capital explanation is for explaining division of labor


The authors used participant observation, student surveys, student interviews, and student responses on a one-page free write, to assess the effectiveness of this approach in three different courses.

Students were quite positive, but there was a little bit of backlash due to the fact that the authors chose to give students participation points for answering the questions.

The researchers noticed that the use of clickers changed the class culture and environment, as students took the class more seriously and were more likely to attend.  Students participated more both through the simple act of voting on the questions, but also because the displayed diversity of opinion prompted them to speak up to explain their responses.  This is the first time I have heard of such an effect, and it makes a lot of sense to me.  Clickers also created a better sense of community in the class, which can be tough in a large class.

Tips for Facilitation

In my work, I often stress how critical (and challenging) it is for the instructor to lead an effective discussion about the clicker question after the votes are in.  The authors also report that this was a crucial aspect of the clicker question effectiveness.  They also summarize several other important considerations in facilitation, most of which are repeated in the materials we have created in the Science Education Initiative:

  1. Write good questions that encourage critical thinking
  2. Frame how and why clickers are being used, and cite research on benefits of active learning
  3. Explain how student evaluation will be achieved with clickers
  4. Indicate the “clicking in” for another student is cheating
  5. Determine whether to include right/wrong answers in questions
  6. Consider issues of confidentiality

They have also created a nice guide: ” A Practical Guide to Implementing Clickers in the Sociology Classroom“, which you can download.

Image from Kontos on Wikimedia

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Kirstie Chadwick April 29, 2013 at 10:46 am

Great article! Please note that a new generation of cloud-based student engagement platforms, which replace clickers with student-owned smart mobile devices, enables instructors to interact/assess/engage students with more than multiple choice questions. Via Response, for example, provides case study, essay, image/media. multi-question quizzes, and live class discussion engagement tools in addition to polls. Due to our cloud-based architecture, students can interact through their own devices from any location – ideal for hybrid or live lectures using streaming video.

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