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Newsletter 11 – Classroom Response Systems

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 MBC. However, with MBC’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:

  1. Socrative (www.socrative.com).

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.
Students log in to the student website (m.socrative.com/student or download the student app), and instructors use the instructor site or app version. Upon logging in, students enter a unique room number or name selected by the instructor (e.g., CHEM121MBC). The instructor can then see how many students are in the room, which makes this also a useful tool for taking attendance, as students need to enter their name when they join a room. The professor can then begin posing questions to the students. The different question options range from multiple choice, True/False, or open-ended short answer questions. Socrative also compiles all the answers and presents them on the classroom computer (where the instructor logged in with her/his account) or via email.
Socrative requires students to have a smartphone or laptop or tablet. At the beginning of the semester, I poll students in the class whether they own a smartphone/tablet/laptop and over the past two years, only three students did not have one, and I allowed them to either submit their answers on paper or the instructor can lend them an iPad that the instructor checks out from OIT during class.
The general procedure with Socrative and similar CRS systems is: Before class, the professor creates a “quiz” of multiple choice, short answer or true false questions. Then, at the start of class, the instructor starts the quiz on the classroom computer and “sends” the questions to students as needed. The first question usually is “enter your name” to record attendance and match answers with names. I have used Socrative extensively over the past year in chemistry classes and, in addition to using it as a tool to gauge classroom comprehension, I use it to:

 

  • Take attendance. Socrative asks students at the start of a session to log in with their name.
  • Give students credit for classroom attendance or participation. However, every so often a student will have trouble connecting to the MBC Wi-Fi network (I encourage students with smartphones to log onto Wi-Fi as cellular data reception in buildings is rather spotty), so I generally give full participation credit if a student answers or completes 70% or 80% of the questions correctly.
  • A beta site is available that allows questions to include some mathematical symbols, Greek letters, superscripts and subscripts and the like.
  • Students can see whether they answered correctly right away (this can be disabled). Also the pace of the questions students see on their device can be controlled by the instructor screen, so that students only see the question that is relevant to the topic covered at a particular moment.

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.

  1. Poll Everywhere (www.polleverywhere.com)

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.
Summary: Allows responses via text message and web for students without smartphones/laptops, and can display results in PowerPoint. Only allows anonymous responses unless paid version is used so only useful for overall classroom comprehension. Students on text-only phones may spend more time texting their answers.
      3. Google Forms/Docs: 
All MBC students have access to Google Docs (now Google Drive) and the instructor can set up a form through google docs and email the link to the form to students before class or use an URL shortener and write the URL for the form on the classroom blackboard/Smartboard for students to access the form.  Students can use their laptops/smartphones/tablets to access the form, and if the instructor selects the option to collect the MBC username, the responses can be graded.

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.
However in spite of the disadvantages listed, many of us (including students) are now quite familiar with Google Docs so that it is a somewhat easy experiment and it does not require students to sign up at a non-MBC site. Also, special characters and images cannot be included.

Summary: Most MBC 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:
http://angelb.wordpress.com/2012/03/08/alternatives-to-physical-clickers-in-the-classroom-list/

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 MBC. The Current Committee is:

Ken Beals
Carol Creager
Doris Dodson
Ben Herz
Bob Klonoski
Chandra Mason
Pat Murphy
Reid Oechslin
Rachel Potter
Beverly Riddell
Laura van Assendelft

The charter of the committee is to:

  • Provide a forum for input to the Instructional Technology staff on the relative value of technological improvements from a pedagogical perspective.
  • Be a champion and example for technology enhanced teaching within their schools