Engaging learners – Use their mobile phone!

Technology doesn’t inherently improve learning; it merely makes possible more effective pedagogy, and only when it is consonant with an instructor’s educational philosophy and beliefs and reinforced by other components of the total course” – Educause Research Bulletin, 2004(3), 2004. 

No, no…I’m not talking about mobile learning here but rather on using mobile phone in a classroom for interactive learning. First, let’s picture this scenario: You walk into the classroom with high spirit and full of enthusiasm, eager to start your lecture. As usual, you have prepared well in advance and you have visualised in your head how you would deliver the lecture. You start the lecture and after 10 or 15 minutes you pause and ask, "Does anybody have any questions?" More often than not, nobody raises a hand. “Hmm…sure everything clear?” (yeah…nodding…). If you ask a specific question, “Can anyone give one example of shear-thinning food?", perhaps only one or two students would willingly respond (in most cases, the same student every time). This scenario is quite common in most traditional “passive” classrooms and it can be very discouraging even for enthusiastic teachers. Obviously, merely asking questions and pausing for students to think is insufficient – it hardly engages the students and makes them an active participant in the learning process. It is likely that you end up giving the answer for your own question!

Research has shown that two fundamental challenges (among others) in teaching are (1) how to engage students in the classroom and (2) how to determine if they are learning what you are teaching. Lectures, even well-crafted and entertaining, are not the most effective way to encourage conceptual understanding and to promote deep learning. Yet lectures are still the dominant mode of teaching. Supplementing or replacing lectures with more active learning approaches can seem daunting, particularly in large classrooms, but a number of alternative methods involving group interactions and inquiry-based learning approaches have been used successfully.

In this writing I’d like to touch on the aspect of engaging students in the classroom using an electronic Student Response Systems, often referred as “Clickers” or the web-based (online) polling system such as Poll Everywhere. Clickers system consists of a simple hardware and software set up. The teacher asks a multiple-choice question, and the students choose an answer and click a button on a small transmitter. A receiving unit counts all the answers and displays them on the instructor’s computer, usually as a histogram. The histogram may be projected for the class to see. Based on the overall response, the teacher can then decide whether to proceed or to spend more time to revise on a particular topic. Properly designed and implemented, this system provides a convenient way for a teacher to conduct formative (continuous) assessment and evaluate the conceptual understanding of the students. Additionally, the student learns immediately whether he or she understands the concept that the teacher is presenting, without waiting for a test. According to Weiman and Perkins (2005), if used properly, clickers can have a profound impact on the students' educational experience.

Teachers may have the tendency to cram a lot of things in a 50 minutes lecture. Cognitive research has shown that the amount of new material presented in a typical class is far more than a typical person can process or learn. Moreover, recent research has shown that an average person’s attention span is just around five minutes!  According to Mayer (2003), the more things the brain is given to process at the same time (called cognitive load) the less effectively it can process anything. Any additional cognitive load, no matter what form it takes, will limit people's abilities to mentally process and learn new ideas. To overcome this problem, Weiman and Perkins (2005) randomly divide the students seating at adjacent seats into several groups (3 or 4 students per group). For each lecture, they designed a series of about six clicker questions that cover the key learning goals for that day. Putting the students in a group allows them to discuss and interact before they submit the answer. Weiman and Perkins asserted that peer discussions serve several purposes:
  • Discussion in a group encourages students to share their thoughts and carry out the primary processing of new ideas and problem-solving approaches. 
  • Critiquing each other's ideas to arrive at a consensus answer also enormously improves their ability to carry on scientific discourse. 
  • The discussion helps them to learn to evaluate and test their own understanding. 

Although multiple-choice questions (MCQ) may seem limiting, they have found that the activity managed to promote the desired student engagement and guiding student thinking. MCQs work particularly well if the possible answers embody common confusions or difficult ideas.

The problem with using clickers is the investment for the hardware and software system and maybe other logistics and maintenance problems. Worry not – there are several web-based, online polling systems that can be used as long as internet connection is available in the classroom. There’s no requirement for special hardware or software. One system that I have a direct experience is Poll Everywhere which I have described in details in my previous post. The system is free for up to 30 votes. The cost of subscription for more than 30 users is quite reasonable. With Poll Everywhere, you can give MCQ or a question that require a short answer. The cost per "sms" is about the same with normal 'sms'. I have yet to try it in my lecture but my experience using it in the seminar was very positive. I don’t want to elaborate further because I have blogged about it here.

Duncan (2006) has listed the following advantages on using clickers in a classroom:
  • Measure what students know before you start to teach them (preassessment to gauge students’ prior knowledge)
  • Measure student attitudes
  • Find out if students have done their assigned reading
  • Get students to confront common misconceptions
  • Transform the way you do any demonstrations
  • Increase students’ retention of what you teach
  • Test student understanding (formative assessment)
  • Make some kinds of grading and assessment easier
  • Facilitate testing of conceptual understanding
  • Facilitate discussion and peer instruction
  • Increase class attendance
References and further readings: