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February 7, 2005

New Technology Boosts
Students’ Classroom Participation

Students in a biology class use a personal response system to answer a multiple choice question

Students in a biology class use a personal response system to answer a multiple choice question.

Photo by Dollie Harvey

“Does everybody understand?” Silence. “Does anyone have any questions?” Silence.

Those silences can be awkward for both professors and students. Now, in an effort to increase class participation and find out whether students understand the subject matter, some faculty are experimenting with a classroom technology that resembles something students are already comfortable with – a remote control.

The technology, known as a personal response system, uses individual transmitters to beam students’ answers to multiple choice questions to receivers connected to the instructor’s laptop computer. Linked software tallies the responses and presents the results on screen within seconds, enabling the professor to make an on-the-spot decision about whether the class is ready to progress to the next topic.

After class, the data are available in spreadsheet form for the faculty member to analyze on an individual basis. Each transmitter has a serial number coded to a particular student on the roster, so that answers can be identified and, where appropriate, credit assigned.

In a recent Biology 102 class in Torrey Life Sciences Building, John Cooley used the personal response system to test students’ grasp of cell division. Responding to a question displayed in PowerPoint on a large screen, more than 100 students pointed calculator-sized transmitters at receivers attached to six plasma monitors around the classroom and clicked a button corresponding with one of the multiple-choice answers. A box on a grid at the foot of the screen lit up for each response received.

When the timer, also displayed on screen, completed its 40-second countdown, a bar chart appeared, showing that 90 students got the correct answer, and 19 were distributed between two incorrect responses. Satisfied that the majority were following the material, Cooley moved on.

In a lecture of more than an hour, the students used the clickers half a dozen times, giving them an opportunity for some hands-on involvement.

“This is traditionally a low-participation course,” says Cooley, an assistant professor-in-residence in the ecology and evolutionary biology department who is one of three faculty members teaching the course this semester. “It’s part of the distribution requirements. The department is trying to make the course interesting and exciting and find ways to engage students.”

Physics professor George Gibson has been using handheld transmitters in class since spring 2003.

“The system is helpful to those who never try to answer in class,” Gibson says. “It’s anonymous, so they can give it a shot.”

He says the technology gives students, as well as professors, an idea of how they are doing in the class: “If 90 percent get it right and they’re among the few that are not getting it, that sends them a pretty powerful message that they need to do something – do their homework, or go to see the professor.”

Gibson offers credit for use of the transmitters: one point for trying, and one “extra credit” point for getting the answer right. “It’s amazing what that does for attendance in class,” he says, “even if the credit is statistically irrelevant.”

Using the system successfully, say those who have worked with the technology, depends on asking the right questions. If a question is too easy, 100 percent of the answers will be correct; if it’s too difficult, none will be right. “Neither tells you anything,” says Keith Barker, director of the Institute for Teaching and Learning.

The technology is not expected to replace quizzes and exams. But, says Cooley, if students participate and get the answers right, that can boost their confidence.

“Credit for correct answers with the personal response system can’t be a big part of the grade,” says Gibson. “It would be too easy to cheat. I don’t know that somebody doesn’t have five remotes. They could be clicking for their friends.”

The technology is still evolving. The latest generation of transmitters gives a signal when the response has been received, eliminating the need to display that information.

The mode of transmission is also changing. The current systems all use infrared communication, but, says Dan Mercier, director of the Instructional Design Team in the Institute for Teaching and Learning, “the wave of the future will be radio frequency.”

Another as yet unresolved issue is cost. Currently, the Institute for Teaching and Learning and individual deans are supporting some of the pilots. The costs include receivers, cables, a laptop and software, and installation of the system in a classroom. Each student in the class purchases a transmitter, although in most cases part of that cost is refunded if the transmitter is later turned in. Some textbook publishers are starting to bundle transmitters with books, but, predicts Mercier, the cost of that will likely be passed on to students.

But first, the technology needs to be standardized. There are currently half a dozen different systems available, three of which are being tested at UConn.

If in the future UConn adopts a single system, the University or the Co-op could have a central repository of transmitters and students could be issued one to use for multiple courses during their college career.