Quick, click: Student response systems evolve in higher ed

New student response systems offer increased versatility

All eyes turn to the front of the lecture hall as John August, dean of faculties and associate provost at Texas A&M University, directs his class of 100 veterinary medical students to answer a question on the screen.

Pulling smartphones from their pockets, students quickly type their responses into a polling application—a newer version of the classic hardware-based student response devices.

As students submit their responses, a word cloud appears on the screen, creating a visual map of answers. The most frequent responses appear in larger text, while the more obscure answers are smaller.

“With these systems, you first have to get used to the technology,” August says. “Then you can make it work for you.”

Colleges and universities have used student response systems for years to take attendance, administer pop quizzes and register informal polls in larger classes where verbal discussions are limited. But as technology improves, student response systems are becoming more versatile than ever—and instructors are increasingly creative in using them.

Embracing apps

Providers such as Turning Technologies and i>Clicker have maintained a presence in the higher education market for more than a decade, offering hardware devices, or “clickers” with keypads, that students can use to register responses in class. Several vendors still offer clickers but have also moved toward embracing app-based response systems.

“The actual evolution of response systems in higher education has been interesting, because no campus can tell an instructor, ‘You have to teach this way with this tool,’ ” says Tina Rooks, chief instructional officer at Turning Technologies. “Some instructors love that a traditional clicker can’t do anything else, such as browsing the Internet, while others have embraced the mobile app and allow students to bring out their smartphones in class.”

Even within the same institution, usage might differ widely from classroom to classroom depending on instructors’ needs and preferences. The overall trend seems to be a move toward embracing the app-based systems with their additional capabilities.

Vendors, such as Poll Everywhere, offer a broad range of question types and answer displays, allowing instructors to create open-ended polls, clickable images, ranking questions and equations. These options are easily compatible with the touchscreen technology of today’s smartphones and tablets.

Anonymity encourages responses

Instructors still use response systems to collect attendance or administer multiple-choice quizzes. But today’s more innovative uses aim for increased student interactivity.

To create an atmosphere for open discourse in the classroom, many instructors opt to keep student responses anonymous rather than using the devices to track progress or grades, especially when they are asking open-ended poll questions.

“Typically, we don’t use our systems for graded assessments,” says Amy Chase Martin, director of faculty development and instructional media at Howard Community College in Maryland. “We use them as a way of identifying prior knowledge, to check in with students to see what they gained from a lesson, to provoke discussion and to review before exams.”

Response systems can also create safe spaces for students and spark empathy.

“A faculty member in one of our psychiatric nursing classes wanted to create interest in her subject matter about depression,” says Martin. “We created polling questions like, ‘Do you ever struggle with depression?’ and gave students a chance to answer anonymously. It doesn’t really matter how many students are in the room. Seeing the results of that kind of polling creates sensitivity, because now I have information about my peers without knowing who they are.”

Christopher Robertson, visiting professor of law at New York University, sees benefits in eliciting anonymous responses from students.

“For some students, raising their hands in class can be a little scary,” Robertson says. “There are issues of gender, race and class involved. In law, male students are much more likely to volunteer in class—asking everyone to use the poll eliminates that barrier and creates a new way of engaging people.”

Beyond the lecture hall

Large classrooms—where instructor-to-student interaction is limited—are still the most common spaces where response systems are found. But because the variety of functions is widening, so are the potential applications in every class size.

“In a large lecture class, a professor might allow students to choose which way the lecture goes, based on feedback and interest,” says Ashok Kanjamala, vice president of marketing at Poll Everywhere. “In both smaller or larger classes, polling is useful for dry topics. There’s a rule in lecturing that you want to make sure people are awake every seven to 15 minutes, and polling is a way to make sure they are still engaged.”

August uses student response systems in several creative ways at Texas A&M, from polling to creating an ongoing chat where students can ask and answer questions throughout the lecture—and even after the class period ends. He calls his two response methods “front-channeling” and “back-channeling.”

“In front-channeling, I ask the students questions and they provide answers to the group on the screen,” August explains. B

ack-channeling relies on a system called TodaysMeet to create a webpage where students a particular class can post questions or comments. “We check the webpage periodically and their questions are protected by a sense of anonymity, which is particularly useful for when you’re dealing with complicated material.”

August says he finds front-channeling most useful in review sessions and flipped classes, where students are asked to examine materials ahead of time. Back-channeling works best for lectures, when August wants to check students’ understanding and address questions as he moves forward. “But I never use both technologies at once,” he says. “Otherwise, it becomes too confusing for me and my students.”

The retention link

Can student success be attributed to the use of student response systems? While it’s difficult to draw direct, quantifiable outcomes from student response system usage, Martin at Howard Community College sees the newer systems as examples of highly interactive, student-centered learning that will lead to retention.

“Research is showing us that any kind of student-centered instruction has a positive impact in learning,” says Martin. “By extension, we’d assume we will keep those students.”


Jessica Leigh Brown is a Knoxville, Tennessee-based writer.


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