Audience response systems can boost student engagement

Creating two-way discussions through periodic questions in lectures can improve student involvement and performance.
By: | January 5, 2021
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Frank Spors

“The goal of any lecture should be to engage the audience. If lectures are only done passively, the audience remembers the first five minutes and that’s about it.” – Frank Spors, associate professor of optometry at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif.

The flip side, as Spors has experienced through his instruction and peer-reviewed research, is that when students are involved in active learning they not only retain material for longer periods but also get better grades.

In fact, he spent a year tracking a group of his graduate students at Western U and found that 100% were participating in his lectures. They also improved their overall marks by nearly 4%.

What was the tool that led to that success?

Spors credits audience response systems (ARS) – where students answer questions throughout discussions – for helping foster the kind of two-way engagement that every instructor hopes to achieve. Reaching even the most timid students, the use of ARS at Western and many other universities such as Auburn, Georgia, Indiana, Florida and Rutgers, have breathed new life into teaching and done so at time when communication can be challenging.

“It allows us to have a real dialogue going on in class and get real-time feedback, to see whether the material that you discuss and teach is understood,” Spors says. “The danger in an online environment is that intuitive disconnect. This closes the gap of distance education. It helps to build a sense of community between the students because they feel they are part of that discussion.”

What is an ARS?

Audience response systems help keep those who attend classes or sessions, both in virtual environments and in person, involved in instruction. Those who have attended webinars during the COVID-19 pandemic likely have participated in simple question-and-answer polls … where they otherwise might be prone to tune out or just sit on the sidelines and observe. These questions serve as a way to increase engagement, while also cleverly helping reinforce some of the material presented earlier. The ARS used in higher education have far more bells and whistles than those simple responses.

The ARS is not new. Years ago, those attending lectures would be given hand-held clickers to respond to questions posed by instructors in face-to-face environments. While keeping students somewhat engaged, their tracking capabilities and educational value, however, were rather limited.

Over the years, thanks to improvements in ARS and the emergence of technologies that placed devices in the hands of students and professors, their popularity and their usefulness have led to widespread implementation in higher education. Spors says the majority of instructors at Western University use ARS to some degree through Top Hat, which is also the platform of choice for more than 750 colleges and universities.

As opposed to a traditional lecture environment, where an instructor can dominate the dialogue for long periods, the ARS best functions when a question is posed (through a web-based environment on any device) to students every 15 minutes amid a series of slides. Spors says those questions allow all people to respond directly, not just a “single person that raises the hand in the classroom [or virtual space].”

He says two models work well: The first poses a question to the audience, which then prompts discussion after an answer is revealed. The other poses a question and gains responses that are hidden before students break into small groups for further review. The group then votes and comes up with a more well-investigated answer.

“And that is really an active engagement in the learning material, because they had to defend their position to their peers … why they actually selected a particular answer,” Spors says. “It might not only have changed their answer, but they have engaged with it.”

ARS for students and professors

The new response systems offer tremendous value for students and provide an incredible amount of support for instructors. Professors not only can tailor when and how questions are posed in their lectures, but they can see who is responding, who is answering correctly and then track it all for future use or even as part of a grading system. He says he has seen a huge spike in involvement from students.

“You have proof of it, because the software archives this, and you can see which student responded and for how long they thought about a question,” Spors says. “It allows you to follow up and directly send an email to the students if you see something is not going right. It also flags a student’s participation.”

Spors says that from the software, instructors can get a weekly report that shows which students are achieving through their responses and which ones are struggling. It also can measure of the effectiveness of the instructor’s questions and “whether you have to go in and explain [a concept] again or not.”

“The overarching goal is to get the students engaged in the material, to talk about the material, to think about the material, and somehow get their feedback That is ultimately what they need to do in order to learn.” Frank Spors

Instructors can give credit for participation. They also can conduct 10-20 question exams through the ARS that are timed or untimed. The options are limitless. But the key, he says, is engagement, not necessarily scoring and grading.

“The overarching goal is to get the students engaged in the material, to talk about the material, to think about the material, and somehow get their feedback,” Spors says. “That is ultimately what they need to do in order to learn. If there is a participation reward, the students are much more likely to bring in the answer, even though they might not be very sure about it. As instructors, this gives us much better feedback on how well certain topics are understood.”

Working the ARS

Spors says the ARS is especially effective in science-based education environments and others where more dynamic two-way dialogue can occur. In his courses, which require teaching a lot of optics concepts and materials, he says it is helpful to be able to elicit real-time responses.

“There’s a lot of didactic material to talk about, a lot of problem-solving going on, that lends itself very well to be in an audience response system,” he says.

Not every lab or lecture is a good fit for ARS. He says high-level clinical education conducted in small groups, where students must comb through a lot of information,  likely won’t mesh with a quick question-and-response system. He admits ARS is very valuable but is only one part of a success teaching strategy.

“Technology is only as good as it’s utilized,” Spors says. “It could be done clumsily. It could be completely overdone. It could be done in a way that the students get frustrated. So you have to be careful. You have to know the system. You have to know its limitations. And you don’t want to overdo it. It has to be the right amount.”

But if it’s done right, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.

“The system makes a difference in how the students received the material, how they feel about it,” Spors says of his students. “We did get improvement from the prior year when they participated. It’s just one tool, but it’s a pretty useful tool.”