Peter Ruiz-Haas, Assistant Professor of Chemistry
|Just about all of us have experienced that look in students’ eyes indicating that they understand or do not understand the explanation given or the conclusions just drawn. But how do we really know that our students are not merely acting the part when they nod in agreement, trying to get us to believe that they understand something when they do not? Classroom response systems (CRS), commonly known as “clickers,” have been used effectively to help professors and high school teachers tailor their classes and lectures accordingly.Clickers have been in use in large universities for several years. Typically, a specialized receiver is installed in a classroom and students buy or rent a remote-controlled transmitter (“clicker”). In class, the professor displays a multiple-choice question on the screen, and the student submits an answer to the question with the clicker, that beams a signal to the classroom receiver, which is attached to the teacher’s computer, in a similar fashion to audience polling in “Who wants to be a Millionaire” (don’t we all want to be one?). Software on the teacher’s computer collects the students’ answers and produces a bar chart showing how many students chose each of the answer choices.
Teaching with CRS is usually centered in large lectures, and thus of limited use in smaller classes such as those offered at Mary Baldwin. However, with Mary Baldwin’s bimodal student population, it is somewhat common for the better students to be the more engaged participants even in a smaller class, thus leading the professor to incorrectly believe that everyone is “getting it.” The pedagogical advantage to a clicker system is that it allows the professor to make on-the-fly instructional choices in response to the bar chart by, for example, leading students in a discussion of the merits of each answer choice or asking students to discuss the question or solve a problem in small groups before submission. And, it allows the professor to gauge overall understanding by the class and adjust the lecture accordingly. Use of CRS creates an interactive and fun learning environment: Having been asked a particular question or problem, students are interested in seeing the results. They want to learn whether they answered the question correctly, and they want to see how their response compares to the responses of their fellow audience members.These systems cost upwards of $200 per classroom, without including the answer keypads which cost about $10-20 each, which students would have to rent or purchase. However, with the advent of smart phones and text messaging, several free apps have become available over the past two that allow usage of clicker-type polling technologies that are free for smaller audiences. Here is a summary of the best ones I have tried and the pros and cons to each:
It is free for classes under 50 students and runs on tablets, smartphones or any other device that can access the web. There also are free Apple and Android based apps available.
Summary: Socrative was designed for classroom polling and is the best free clicker alternative. It is free and allows tracking of student answers and attendance. However, it only works on web-enabled devices and will not work in a classroom with poor WiFi coverage.
Free for up to 40 responses (students) per question. It allows submission of responses through web-enabled devices, and also via text message, so students with non-smartphones can participate (if they have a text messaging plan, which most do). And it has a special PowerPoint plug-in that allows responses to be shown live on a PowerPoint slide, which Socrative does not offer. However, it cannot be used to track attendance as responses are anonymous. The paid version ($65/month!) allows tracking of grading and answers.
Each question is a separate poll so it involves considerable more clicking on the website during class to load sequential/subsequent questions, and the PowerPoint slides need to be prepared carefully as the plugin runs a background script that connects to their servers to display the results and is sometimes blocked by antivirus software.
As the students submit their answers, the responses are tracked in a spreadsheet inside Google Docs. The professor can view their responses in a bar chart or other chart visualization, created by Google Docs. However, it takes some skill to set up the submission (answer) spreadsheet to graph the results appropriately. An additional disadvantage is that the results window would need to be manually refreshed with the chart display to show updates as responses come in from the student audience. Students can see all the questions on their devices at once, so the teacher cannot pace the questions students see on their device (the solution to that would be to have generic questions (e.g., Question 1, Question 2, etc.) and the instructor displays the full text on the classroom screen, so students cannot answer until the question is displayed). Furthermore, students do not get instant feedback when they submit an answer, and if the instructor uses the same poll address each time (or emails the link in advance), students can complete the poll from their dorm room and not come to class.
Summary: Most Mary Baldwin students are familiar with Google Forms. Forms need to be shared with students by link or email. Answers can be viewed live only with constant refreshing of the screen. Students can see all questions at once.
4. Other services:
Another frequently mentioned service, PollDaddy (www.polldaddy.com) is a simple interface similar to Poll Everywhere that works well in a browser and on a mobile device (including iPhone and iPad), and is also a useful tool for classroom polling. PollDaddy keeps basic reports of the responses an instructor receives from their polls. However, the free account allows only 200 survey responses a month, so in most classes that limit is reached quickly.
Several other limited free services exist, but for full features, either the instructor or participants need to have a paid account. They have been graciously compiled in the link below, and I’d be interested to hear if anyone has tried these. The more versatile ones require the students to install a paid app and I have not evaluated those:
A hurdle for anyone wishing to use classroom response systems on student’s devices is managing students’ use of their personal portable devices in class. That being the case, if you plan on using Socrative or similar apps, you will need to have a plan for how, when, and where during class that you will allow their use. Purposeful use of technology is one thing, but unplanned and unstructured use is an invitation to possible distraction. That being said, finding a way to obtain feedback, using the feedback to create opportunities for expanded discussions, and having the feedback influence students learning is one of the benefits of using a classroom response system.
About the Committee:
The Instructional Technology Committee is an ad-hoc faculty committee made up of representatives from the faculty and the Instructional Technology staff at Mary Baldwin. The Current Committee is:
The charter of the committee is to: