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Personal Response System Boosts Class Participation

November 8, 2005

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Imagine having the ability to anonymously push a button to tell your professor what you think he or she is trying to teach you. Thanks to new technology, Northwestern students can do just that.

Northwestern University is one of several schools in the area to use wireless personal response systems (PRS) in about a half-dozen classes, so far.

The PRS, or “clicker” as some call it, looks like a television remote. When a student pushes a button on the clicker in response to a question, an infrared or radio signals sends the answer to a receiver. Immediately, that information is compiled and displayed as a graphic in a power-point-like display that the entire class can see.

Suzanne A. Olds, assistant chair of biomedical engineering, says the PRS gives her great feedback. She says she uses the PRS every other class as a way to see students actively constructing knowledge. “I used to assume my thermodynamics students understood what I was teaching. With PRS, I can gauge their misconceptions and adjust the pace,” she says.

One of the developers of the system, Harvard University Professor Eric Mazur, visits Northwestern Nov. 17 as part of the President’s Teaching Series. His lecture on “Confessions of a Converted Lecturer” will be held at 5 p.m. in the McCormick Tribune Forum. Mazur sees this process as a way to get more students from passive and surface learners to active, deep learners, especially in large lectures.

There are a variety of uses for PRS. Olds says she uses it to ask a conceptual question while introducing a new topic to see what the students know. “At the end of the unit, I’ll ask another conceptual question. When the students answer, I hope to get 90 percent who know the answer. But sometimes I get 50 percent. Then I know I need to slow down and use other approaches to help the students understand,” she says.

Olds says the PRS has become a great tool to promote classroom discussion and learning. “It’s something I can use to make it worthwhile for students to come to class,” Olds adds.

Professor Olds gives each of her students a clicker to use throughout the quarter. It is returned at the end of the quarter. Martina Bode, senior lecturer in mathematics, divides her calculus class into small discussion groups and gives a clicker to one out of every four students. The students work in groups to answer problems and then use the PRS to respond to Bode’s questions.

She says her favorite part of the PRS is the instant feedback. She can see, immediately, if the students understand or not.

“It’s not enough to sit and observe in my class. My students have to participate. They are more motivated to learn and they are more engaged in learning with the PRS. Hopefully, they will get a better conceptual understanding,” Bode says.

“The PRS has been an effective tool for instruction. But not every faculty member may want to use it. It’s time consuming to build lectures around it. But I want my students to be part of the lecture and discussion,” she adds.

Miriam Rosalyn Diamond, associate director of faculty programs at the Searle Center for Teaching Excellence, surveyed other universities to see how they used the PRS and found it has both strengths and weaknesses in helping students to learn.

“Students feel more comfortable participating in classrooms with PRS. They are more willing to take a risk in answering a question because they can remain anonymous. They don’t have to fear looking stupid in front of their peers if their answer is wrong. The PRS helps to better involve students in large lecture halls who otherwise can easily get lost in the sea of students,” she says.

In addition, the system can be integrated easily with Power Point.

On the other hand, she says the PRS has some limitations. Instructors cannot ask open-ended questions. They only can ask multiple choice or true/false questions. This limits the number of potential answers students can come up with. The PRS relies on the instructor’s comfort with technology. And everything has to be working. Diamond says something as simple as batteries wearing out could cause the system to fail, so instructors must always have back-up lectures.

“I agree with Bode. Using the PRS significantly increases preparation time for the teachers. It takes a lot of time to write good questions,” she says.

Northwestern is using several different clicker systems right now.

Associate director of research and evaluation at Searle, Denise Drane, has surveyed Northwestern students to get their reactions to PRS. The survey showed the PRS is a resounding success when it comes to helping students with their conceptual understanding. “Almost 73 percent of the students agreed that they are more aware of misunderstandings and misconceptions in class. That’s huge because the teacher can see this during class and work immediately to help the students understand the concepts,” Dr. Drane says. In fact, the survey showed 88 percent of the students agreed that using the PRS has helped the teacher become aware of their conceptual difficulties.

The study found 73 percent of those surveyed feel more actively involved in classes with PRS when compared to traditional classrooms. Drane says that leads to deeper learning and greater retention of the material, and has a significant impact on the quality of learning.

Northwestern faculty interested in the learning and teaching potential of the PRS system can contact the Searle Center at http://teach.northwestern.edu or call (847) 467-2338. Information is also available online at: 2East.northwestern.edu by clicking on “video archives” and “using a personal response system.”

Topics: University News