Student motivation to engage with clicker questions

by Stephanie Chasteen on February 27, 2015

I’ve been doing a lot of reading in the educational psychology literature lately, to better understand what the learning sciences has to tell us about student motivation – and how that might relate to what we should do as instructors to motivate students to engage in clicker questions. I wanted to share what I’ve found as a useful framework for instructors.

We can think of motivation in four main ways:

1. Punishment and rewards. Think behaviorism: rats, levers, and cheese. We’re motivated to seek rewards and avoid punishments. This is a pretty materialistic view of motivation, but we use it all the time. Praising students for participation in clicker questions, or admonishing them for texting during clicker questions, are fine motivators – but are pretty unlikely to result in the student internalizing the value of clickers. Points are another common reward – see my earlier post. Apparently experts only recommend using points to encourage participation in situations in which the students wouldn’t engage in the task otherwise, hoping that students will eventually see the value of that activity. Is that the case for your students? Perhaps, given our overworked student body, it often is.

2. Thoughts and beliefs. This is the cognitive side of motivation. Do the students find the clicker questions interesting? Will the questions help them to achieve their goals in the class? Are the clicker questions presenting realistic challenges for students, helping them to feel more competent? Do they feel intrinsically interested in the questions, and that they get a chance to try out new ideas during clicker questions? In a classroom which feels more controlling (e.g., clickers being used to track attendance, or check whether students have done the reading), students are less likely to become intrinsically motivated to engage in the questions.

3. Interaction of beliefs and the environment. Sociocognitive theory blends a cognitive approach with the behaviorist approach: The motivation to engage arises from students’ thoughts, ideas, and expectations but also from the type of environment that has been created (e.g., rewards and punishments, the difficulty of the task). Do students come into a class using clickers expecting a totally different type of environment? Do they feel unprepared for this type of thinking? Do they think that the clicker questions are useful? Do they feel that it’s within their ability to do well on clicker questions (self-efficacy)? Do they feel that clickers are helping them master the content (a “growth” mindset) or that it’s just important to get the right answer (“fixed” or “performance” mindset)? (Read more about mindset)

4. Relationships. Lastly, sociocultural theories specifically look at the relationships and interaction between people and groups in the classroom, and how this gives rise to cultural norms within the classroom. The source of motivation is the relationships that students develop with others, and the goals that the classroom community has found to be important.

So, these frameworks can be very helpful in helping us think about the reasons why we might be careful in how we frame clickers in our classroom, in order to help motivate students to engage. Here are some recommendations which relate to several of these four theories:

  1. Make the clicker questions interesting – as explorations of the content, but also relating them to things that students are already interested or familiar with
  2. Minimize rewards
  3. Avoid a controlling atmosphere where clickers are being used to “check in” on students
  4. Emphasize students’ autonomy during clicker questions (e.g., require them to be “on task” but allow them to choose how to direct their conversations)
  5. Use questions at a variety of difficulty levels – difficult ones to present a realistic challenge, and attainable ones to help support students sense of competence
  6. Use a variety of techniques to motivate diverse students
  7. Reduce anxiety by making expectations clear, supporting students’ sense of competence, and acknowledging difficulty of questions.
  8. Demonstrate stable links between understanding the clicker questions, and doing well in the course
  9. Emphasize that clicker questions help you to master the content – rather than emphasizing the correct answer to any one question
  10. Give constructive feedback
  11. Create a supportive classroom atmosphere

More resources:

This is a repost from my article on the iclicker blog.

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