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Calling All Students...Come In, Students...

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Despite the possible pitfalls, PRS (Personal Response Systems) appears to have the potential to change the way that students and instructors interact with course content. Students who are forming opinions and drawing conclusions in response to PRS queries are likely to be much more engaged with the content than they would be if they were merely deciding which portions of a lecture to render as notes on a page.


The posting below looks at interesting uses of student hand-held wireless feedback systems in the classroom. It is by Michael L. Rodgers and David A. Starrett and is is number 34 in a series of selected excerpts from the National Teaching and Learning Forum newsletter reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [] The on-line edition of the Forum--like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, Volume 15, Number 5, ? Copyright 1996-2006. Published by James Rhem & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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Calling All Students...Come In, Students...


Instructor: "OK, everyone, let me know you are here."

A gentle rustling ensues as students pre ss buttons on their personal response systems.

Instructor: "All right, thanks. Let's get going with our work for today ?"

Kirsten, in Row 16, Seat 11, to Trevor, in Row 16, Seat 10: "I can't believe I forgot that clicker thing AGAIN! Do you think he" (pointing to the Instructor) "will count me present if I go down after class and tell him I'm here?"

Trevor, to Kirsten, uncomfortably: "Nah. He wouldn't take my lab report last week when I missed the date on the Website. I tried to tell him my grandmother died ?"

Instructor: "Last time, we looked at ?"

Personal Response Systems

(PRS), nicknamed "clickers" by many, use a computer- interfaced receiving unit to communicate wirelessly with handheld sending units under the control of individual students. Such systems can be used to collect information from students, typically in the form of multiple choice responses to questions posed by the instructor during class. Often, the percentage of students choosing a question's available responses are displayed on a projection screen within a minute or two after the question is presented to the class.

Certainly the idea of polling an audience is ancient, and even the use of computer technology to facilitate the process is not new: most readers will be familiar with what is perhaps the best known application, the "poll the audience" option in the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire TV shows. But recently, declines in the cost of wireless computing have made low-cost, portable PRS available to schools, corporate trainers, and others who seek audience responses. Many institutions of higher education are now experimenting with PRS as a way to address a variety of needs and concerns.

Giving a Voice to the Crowd

Now that costs are coming down, educators have begun implementing PRS in many courses, but especially in large lecture courses, such as those that enroll 200 or more students. The large-course implementation is quite reasonable: in an environment in which opportunities for student-instructor interactions are typically available only to the most assertive or privileged students, clickers give all students a voice, of sorts. Additionally, the nature of course content in large lecture classes often involves less nuance and less reliance on judgment or comparative analysis than is required in smaller, seminar-style courses. With less demand for modes of communication capable of conveying subtlety, the rather limited multiple-choice question-and-answer interactions supported by PRS will often suffice. And, economies of scale play an important role in large classes: the instructor's investment of time and effort to learn to use the PRS is about the same whether the class is large or small, making implementation in larger classes relatively more efficient. Finally, textbook publishers now routinely offer PRS bundled with textbooks, often with offers of "free" instructor stations and software to those instructors who adopt a PRS-supported text. Understandably, the publishers have focused on texts that tend to be used in large-enrollment courses, in an attempt to add value to their most profitable offerings.

Hey Instructor, What Is the Crowd Saying to You?

Whether the class is large or small, PRS can support both classroom administration and pedagogy. As Kirsten and Trevor illustrated at the beginning of this column, PRS can be used to take roll quickly in large lecture classes. Each student (or at least, the person physically in the seat, operating the clicker) can register his/her presence much more quickly and efficiently than any roll call or sign-in sheet could ever do. PRS can also be used to keep students thinking about the content being presented during lecture. Consider a typical lecture sequence: a topic is introduced, definitions are established, and then an example application is presented. With or without a PRS, the example could be left for the students to work out. But how would the instructor-or equally importantly, each student-know if the example was worked out correctly by the class? If students were equipped with clickers, the instructor could poll the students, offering a multiple-choice list of possible solutions. The benefit? Student expectations are raised, as students are no longer passive note-takers, but are instead active learners, in the sense that they would have to apply the content to the problem posed in class.

Bringing active learning to large classes indeed appears to be a chief benefit of the PRS approach. Efforts to reshape physics education to a more active learning model have shown promising results, encouraging educators in other science disciplines to follow suit. For example, the POGIL (Process-Oriented, Guided Inquiry Learning) project is generating considerable interest among chemistry instructors for its active learning approach to chemistry. A typical POGIL practice is to begin each class with a five-minute credit-bearing quiz on the content introduced in the previous class meeting. The quiz holds students accountable for the knowledge that the POGIL learning environment helps them to construct. How could the quizzes be done efficiently in a large class? The daily quizzes could easily be administered by a PRS in the five-minute window, and feedback on the quiz could be delivered while students still had the quiz questions in mind, but after the quiz responses were collected, making it impossible for students to cheat on the quiz by waiting for the instructor to reveal the answers.

Caveat Instructor

PRS can add a degree of active learning to a class. But care must be exercised. Is the value apparent to the students, or are the clickers little more than a high-tech way of counting hands during a straw poll? When multiple-choice questions are employed, do they require synthesis and analysis, or are they based on recall of facts? Is the instructor skilled enough in the use of PRS to use student responses to guide the lecture? After all, if collecting and summarizing student responses are not time-critical activities to be used to guide the delivery of content, then paper ballots, internet surveys administered after class, and ordinary homework assignments would be adequate tools for collection of student responses. The investment of effort in clicker technology should be reserved for classes in which student responses reveal important clues, for example, rapid mastery of a concept, or a widespread and persistent misconception. Although the textbook publishers' practice of bundling PRS with textbooks suggests that PRS implementation is straightforward enough for an instructor to attempt without assistance, a joint project with the institution's teaching and learning center may help the instructor avoid some of the pitfalls associated with naive PRS implementations.

Another possible pitfall lies in the way that students think about polling, surveys, and taking stands on issues. Many students can be classified as primitive relativists, adhering to a belief system which maintains that there will be little difference in outcome as a result of personal choices. Everything averages out. Such students are unlikely to see much point in expending a great deal of energy thinking through a question posed via a PRS. The low percentage of people aged 18-44 who vote in local, state, and national elections further supports the notion that many students will not take PRS seriously or consider it to be a tool for "real" communication between student and instructor.

Is PRS Worth the Effort?

Despite the possible pitfalls, PRS appears to have the potential to change the way that students and instructors interact with course content. Students who are forming opinions and drawing conclusions in response to PRS queries are likely to be much more engaged with the content than they would be if they were merely deciding which portions of a lecture to render as notes on a page. The move away from note-taking also makes sense if the course is supported by a resource-rich Website: why should students function as scribes (and amateur scribes at that!) if the content is already widely available? Better to redirect student activity away from note-taking in favor of direct engagement with the content.

For instructors interested in a continuous quality improvement approach to course development, PRS can be a boon. Student responses before and after modification of a lecture can be archived and compared, providing a rational basis for judging the effectiveness of the modification. Research projects to explore the soundness of various pedagogical approaches to course content can be rapidly and inexpensively performed.

But perhaps the most intriguing characteristic of PRS is that, as pure technology, its learning curve is quite low, both for students and for instructors. Thus, it is technology that is unusually accessible to faculty, and well-suited to provide an "entry-level" experience with technology for teaching and learning. This is not to say that PRS is easy to master, but the challenging aspects of mastery have much more to do with pedagogy than with the technology itself. PRS requires the instructor to be able to ask good questions, and at least as importantly, use the responses to instantly revise the direction of the day's lecture. The low technology, high pedagogy requirements of the PRS approach may actually commend it to those faculty who are experienced, effective teachers, but who have not yet explored ways by which technology can improve teaching and learning.