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Clicking Your Way to Flipping Your Class

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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In the process of flipping a class, especially for the first time, ‘clicker’-based peer instruction represents a powerful solution to engaging students in order to promote learning. 


The posting below looks at a possible positive relationship between the use of clickers and the use of peer instruction.  It is by Quentin Vicens*, and is from the Skills Forum section of the Federation of European Biochemical Societies ( newsletter (FEBS News, Issue 1, February 2017: pp 17-18) that can be found at: (  © Copyright Federation of European Biochemical Societies 2017. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Clicking Your Way to Flipping Your Class

 ‘Flipping the classroom’ has become a popular endeavour among faculty and instructors¹, ²– it’s a refreshing and most welcome way to change the way we teach. In the process of flipping a class, especially for the first time, ‘clicker’-based peer instruction represents a powerful solution to engaging students in order to promote learning.

Why does flipping a class make sense? In a nutshell: students don’t need an instructor to access content and ‘go through the book chapters’, especially when the internet is available 24/7 – but they do need an instructor to help them digest, process, criticize, and know how to apply that information. From a ‘sage on the stage’ in the traditional lecture, the instructor turns into a ‘guide on the side’, whose job is not merely to deliver complicated matter but to promote learning and ensure mastery of key concepts.

Easier said than done, naturally. And for one thing, preparing slides and talking for an entire lecture without any interruption was convenient for the lecturer. How could you start flipping your approach to lecturing? Prof. Eric Mazur from Harvard University has an answer for you: ‘peer instruction’.

We have all experienced blank stares as a response to a typical ‘do you have any questions?’ at the end of our lectures. We have also sometimes been puzzled by the failure rate in some of our classes, even though we explained complicated matter in the clearest way possible. As it turns out, students often have many questions, but they don’t dare to ask them in front of the class. They may also not be aware that they actually don’t understand a concept. And since they expect similar questions on their exam to the ones they have seen in class, why should they dig any deeper?

Clicker-based peer instruction: the benefits

As Eric Mazur demonstrates (watch one of his YouTube lectures), a way out of that scenario is to ask students a multiple-choice question on a key concept you expect them to have learned, for example at the start of a class. Tell your students to think about their answer in silence, before they cast their vote using a clicker – a hand-held device about the size of a simple calculator or small remote. The results from the vote can be immediately displayed on the projection screen for everyone to see. This form of instant and anonymous feedback benefits everyone. The instructor knows on the spot whether it makes sense to continue lecturing with a more advanced topic, or to resort to another strategy for promoting learning of the underlying concept. The students are empowered from seeing how they are doing in comparison to the rest of their class.

But that is not even the best part yet. The sweet spot is when you get 50±20% of the votes for the correct answer (the vote count does not matter if you asked an open question). In that case, it makes sense to not show the results of the first vote until students have voted a second time, after discussing with a neighbour who did not pick the same answer. Here, the discussion with a peer is in fact what is essential to promote learning³: students are more likely to understand why they are wrong when hearing the explanation from a classmate who just learned the same concept recently, rather than ‘from the professor in front of the class’ who learned it a long time ago⁴. After that second vote, the score generally goes up⁵, indicating that peers have effectively instructed each other⁶.

Repeat that strategy every 15–20 minutes of your lecture, for all the major concepts, and you will have at least ensured that a majority of students have learned what you expected them to learn. You will also have lectured at their speed and not yours, slowing down when needed, or sometimes moving faster (for example when 80% of the students voted for the right answer during the first vote). What happens to the content you would need to ‘sacrifice’ from the time-budget of your lecture in order to ask those clicker questions? A common option is to reformat it to assign it as reading, but you may eventually find out that some is dispensable anyway. At this point, as Eric Mazur noted already over 20 years ago, you have ‘inverted’ or ‘flipped’ your class.

Other approaches exist to flip a class. But peer instruction is a relatively plain and effective way to get started. Why not try it at the end of your next lecture? Just take for example one of your best questions from a past exam. You would not even need clickers right away (see below for the link to a manufacturer’s website), as you could use colour cards, just like they did in a class in India.

Managing students

Students always react positively when exposed to peer instruction for the first time. To carry that same spirit on in the long run, there are many rules and tricks, such as writing engaging clicker questions or managing class discussions around the various possible choices (see below for some practical resources). To limit student resistance, for example from their perception that when you are not lecturing you are not teaching, remind them regularly that learning has to happen in their brain and not in yours. And by definition, that will require some effort (more so than taking notes and perhaps skipping problem solving on homework assignments...). That effort may rapidly be offset by the student awareness that ‘clickers are helping them’, leading to the impression that, with (clicker- based) peer instruction, learning happens almost automatically. Prepare yourself to be surprised!


*Quentin Vicens Université de Strasbourg, CNRS, Architecture et Réactivité de l’ARN, Strasbourg, France; Q.V. is also a Distinguished Educator with Turning Technologies.


¹. Pritchard, J. (2016) Lecture flipping: a student-centred approach for undergraduate teaching. FEBS News November 2016, 11–12.

². Zastrow, M. (2014) In ‘The university experiment: campus as laboratory’. Nature 514, 288–291.

³ Smith, M.K. et al. (2009) Why peer discussion improves student performance on in-class concept questions. Science 323, 122–124 4.

⁴Wieman, C. (2007) The "Curse of Knowledge" or why intuition about teaching often fails. American Physical Society News, 16 (10) 5.

⁵Crouch, C.H. and Mazur, E. (2001) Peer instruction: ten years of experience and results. Am. J. Phys. 69, 970–977.

⁶. Knight, J.K. and Wood, W.B. (2005) Teaching more by lecturing less. Cell Biol. Educ. 4, 298–310.

Further information

Flipped class 101 using peer instruction on Julie Schell’s blog:

Clicker resources at the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative:

Building students’ knowledge one click at a time:

Catch Eric Mazur in person at a Turning Technologies User Conference: His slides from past conferences:

Turning Technologies: