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Undergrads in large classes can click their ways to Vision OHIO goals

May 3, 2006
By Dru Riley Evarts

A large lecture class in an auditorium that seats up to several hundred students in various states of preparation and levels of interest can be daunting to any teacher. Even smaller lecture classes (60 to 100) present problems that can make it difficult for the teacher to feel he or she is reaching everyone in the room.

Large and medium-sized lecture classes are also difficult for students, who (depending on where they are sitting) often cannot hear and sometimes cannot even see a classmate who is responding to a question from the teacher. They are particularly difficult for young students, most of whom have never seen that many people in one room except for all-school assemblies. They cannot easily connect with one another or with the teacher.

Because large classes are exclusively the province of undergraduate students, especially young ones, Vision OHIO is particularly concerned with these classes and how to make learning in them interesting and productive.

One such course that many freshmen and some upperclass students take is Fundamentals of Human Communication (COMS 101). Scott Titsworth, assistant professor of communication studies, went to the Center for Innovations in Technology for Learning (CITL) during Fall Quarter 2004 for help in structuring a class for 400 in such a way as to make it most meaningful for students meeting in Morton 201, the largest lecture hall on campus.

Fortunately, the Ohio Learning Network (OLN) had, just a few months before, established a program of course redesign grants, in cooperation with the National Center for Academic Transformations. OLN's Technology Innovation Course Redevelopment Project had made $356,853 available that first year. Ohio University was successful in applying, and $39,056 (essentially a top award for one university) was granted to restructure COMS 101 in such a way as to increase learning while controlling costs.

CITL's assistant director and Web and multimedia developer, Mike Roy, worked with Titsworth to restructure COMS 101 so that students, even those in the back rows, would be more engaged. The primary new tool they decided to introduce to the class was the student response system (SRS), commonly called "clickers."

The SRS system works this way: Each student in the class has a clicker (about the size of but a little thicker than a credit card) with which he or she can immediately transmit reactions or answers as the professor moves through the lecture. The teacher's questions are shown individually by PowerPoint on the screen in the front of the room. Tallies of answers, usually in percentages of the class, are recorded on the same screen.

In this way, a course can be transformed from a passive learning situation in which the teacher has no idea of individual students' responses or learning until quizzes or midterms might reveal those in trouble, sometimes too late for them to catch up.

"I would describe the general transition from a 'lecture only' course to an 'interactive lecture' as moving from a predominantly deductive pedagogy to an interactive, inductive pedagogy," said Titsworth. "Because the Student Response System allows classes to be organized around interactive questions, I am able to tailor lecture content to the needs of students as the class period progresses. For instance, I can ask questions about content from readings or information presented during the lecture. By using the SRS technology, I am able to immediately assess whether students understand information well enough to answer factual or application-based questions.

"From the beginning of using the SRS system, I was thrilled to have mechanisms through which students can answer questions, provide feedback and take part in class activities," Titsworth said. "An unexpected outcome is accountability. I am more accountable to the students because I can instantaneously see how they are doing and respond to their needs. They are more accountable to me in that they must come to class prepared and be active and diligent listeners while there."

Titsworth found the process of turning his lecture course into this interactive format  enjoyable, and he thought the time spent was very worthwhile for the return in student involvement and response.

Both Titsworth and Roy were very appreciative of the coordination between Communication Network Systems (CNS), the Center for Innovations in Teaching for Learning (CITL), University Facilities and Auxiliaries personnel, and the University Planning Office. The cooperation of everyone involved made the SRS system usable with as few glitches as possible. The vender, Turning Technologies of Youngstown, also was immediately responsive to questions and needs as the system was installed.

Students were enthusiastic about using the clickers and getting immediate responses, as well as additional explanations to any parts of the lecture for which their clicking showed they needed help. They also did better, as evidenced by comparison of their test scores to those of two other sections of COMS 101 that did not have the clickers. Improvement by the time of Exam 2 was just slight, but by the time the class took Exam 3, the improvement was 14 percent above mean scores of the two non-clicker sections. This amounted to one and one-half letter grades.

Students also enthusiastically endorsed the clicker as a learning tool when they filled out their course evaluations at the end of the first quarter of their use. Averages of answers relating to the clickers were 4.5 to 5 on a 5-point scale. Among the most positive answers were: "Clicker questions encouraged me to be more engaged in the classroom process" (4.75); "I like using clickers in class" (4.73); "Clicker questions were helpful in preparing for the exams in class" (4.68); "Using clickers is easy" (4.65); and "Clickers allowed the instructor to be more responsive in this class than in other non-clicker classes" (4.60). The only truly negative response turned out to be positive for clickers, in that the statement "The clickers were frustrating to use" garnered only a 1.5 rating. 

In focus groups conducted at the end of the quarter, students reported positive educational benefits, class engagement, help with focusing during lectures, higher attendance and participation, and better retention, which also helped with exams. Although some students disagreed about the best kinds of clicker questions and others expressed reservations about the cost of clickers, no students disliked the clickers and all indicated they would be excited about using them again.

Some of the specific focus-group remarks for Titsworth's COMS 101 class were:

"Clickers definitely force you to pay attention."

"I think it helps that in a class this size every single person can participate if they have a clicker."

"The professor asks a question and, instead of one person answering it, everybody gets to have a part in the class. It helps participation."

"It's good to get a little break from the lecture. . . . People space out. So it's like, 'OK, get your clickers out. Answer a question,' and everybody does it. It's kind of interactive. It's good."

Titsworth is not the only person on campus using the Student Response System. Some others who have used the system most often are Molly Morris, associate professor of biological sciences; Mangala Sharma,  instructor of physics; Mark Lucas, associate professor of physics and astronomy; David Ingram, professor of physics and Alycia Stigall, assistant professor of geological sciences.             

Morris uses the clickers in Introduction to Zoology (BIOS 330), which meets in Walter Hall 145. Each class period, she ordinarily asks three or four questions to which students respond with the clickers. Both she and Titsworth say they are getting better at writing questions for clickers, an art that takes a little practice and experience. She says reactions of students to clickers are 90 percent positive.

Some comments Morris has received in respect to the SRS system include: 

"I did enjoy the clickers. They helped me pay attention and added very interesting conversation, which is a learning process of its own that is usually lost in a big class."

"Clickers are cool."

"I like how the clickers make the lecture very interactive"

"Clickers are a good thing that helped me, along with the rest of the class, to get involved."

"Clickers were a great idea, . . . made me more active in class and helped me process concepts as soon as I was learning them."

"I liked the clickers because they involved students in the class and made remembering and understanding the material easier."

"I liked the use of clickers; they were a different approach to learning and kept me attentive during class."

Three classrooms on campus -- Morton 201 and Walter 135 and 145 -- are presently the major ones outfitted to use SRS. Other rooms in Walter and Bentley also can be adapted to this use. Because Morton 201 seats such a large number, clickers are checked out for the quarter and any student who does not return his or hers without damage at the end of the quarter is fined $20 for replacement. In both rooms of Walter, students pick theirs up at the beginning of each class and turn them in as they leave the classroom. In all cases, each student has the same clicker, with a particular i.d. number, all quarter. Therefore, it tracks each student's answers so the teacher can help people who give wrong answers frequently.

By fall 2006, Communication Network Services (CNS) will be able to assist teachers who want to use SRS in other rooms on campus as long as a request is made well before the quarter starts, according to David Steortz, CNS desktop engineer. He can be reached at 593-9151 or steortz@ohio.edu.

CITL will arrange individual appointments for faculty members who want to see the Student Response System demonstrated and try out the clickers for themselves. Marjorie DeWert, director of the center; Andy Kranyik, Web project manager; and Roy, who helped Titsworth set up his initial SRS program, are glad to help. Titsworth is currently going into the next step of interactive pedagogy, that of interactive multimedia learning modules, featured in yesterday's Outlook article, which describes the development of this teaching/learning method in CLAS 234, Classic Mythology.

CITL's work in these new methods furthers Vision OHIO's goals of faculty development and enriched student learning.

Dru Riley Evarts is a longtime E.W. Scripps School of Journalism faculty member and was recently appointed university editor. 

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Vision Ohio

Published: May 3, 2006 12:00:00 AM
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