SIP 10.14 Student Response Systems

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

Students in classroom laughing and smiling.

Engaging a room full of students can be challenging. Simply asking “who can tell me … ?” or using one of its different forms – “does anyone know the answer?” – usually leads to the same result: the same few students raise their hands, and their responses serve as a barometer for gauging the progress of the entire class. Those responses can be misleading and do not engage the majority of students. Fortunately, there are far more effective ways to check for understanding, encourage engagement and efficiently allow all students to respond to instructor prompts. Various names are used for the technology that facilitates these efforts, including “audience response systems” and “personal response systems.” However, in educational settings, the term “student response system” is most common. So what is a student response system, and why should you use one in your classroom?

Take a SIP of this: Student Response Systems

Student response systems are an effective and efficient means in increasing student engagement in classes of any size. SRS typically combine wireless technologies with presentation software (such as PowerPoint) and allow members of an audience to individually respond to questions and have their responses recorded, aggregated and graphically displayed in real time. The most popular SRS require a specialized, hand-held remote control to convey responses. However, some SRS do not require specialized hardware and instead allow responses from the audience using a range of common wireless devices such as cellphones, smartphones, tablets and personal computers. Some of these SRS systems also allow for open-ended questions and full text responses, as well as the more traditional (true/false, multiple choice) questions and answers.

SRS have many possible uses. Below are a few examples that you may find helpful in figuring out how an SRS can help you achieve your teaching and learning goals.

  1. Formative Assessment: SRS allow instructors to assess student learning and understanding in real time. Depending on the responses, an instructor can then choose to move on with the course or spend time reteaching or reviewing. Instructors can also reinforce key concepts simply by asking questions about them, regardless of what the student responses reveal (see SIP 2.7 for additional formative assessment ideas).
  2. Encourage Honest Responses: SRS are particularly helpful when addressing controversial topics or asking questions that require potentially stigmatizing response from students. SRS can help instructors gauge students’ attitudes, biases or misconceptions of the issue before discussing it as a class. And by making student responses anonymous, SRS provide students an opportunity to express opinions or react to controversial topics without worrying about being embarrassed in front of their classmates. For example, an instructor who teaches a Drugs in U.S. Society class would use an SRS to poll students on their attitudes and actual drug use to better tailor the class material toward the students’ beliefs and experiences.
  3. In-Class Quizzing: SRS allow instructors to efficiently administer short quizzes in class, such as ones designed to determine whether students have completed the assigned reading. Responses can be automatically scored and easily, even automatically, uploaded to a Learning Management System (e.g., Blackboard) gradebook.
  4. Assessing Prior Knowledge: SRS allow you to easily ask a few questions that will reveal students’ prior knowledge of a subject, broadly speaking. This can be as simple as asking how many students have heard of a key term or concept or as complicated as asking a series of questions that are calculated to reveal where students are with a certain topic or discipline (see SIP 2.10 for additional “Just in Time Teaching” techniques).
  5. Taking Attendance: Finally, SRS are also a convenient way to take attendance in a large class and thus offer an incentive for students not to skip class thinking they will not be missed. However, this should be only a supplementary use of SRS, rather than their primary function. Research suggests that students do not appreciate having to purchase a clicker just so a professor can take attendance.

SRS may also present some challenges and have some limitations. A few of the more common are discussed below.

  1. SRS can be expensive to the school and individual users, especially when specialized hardware is required. A typical clicker usually costs around $50, and the response-receiving base stations cost even more.
  2. SRS hardware needs to be maintained and its firmware updated. Similarly, SRS software needs to be kept up to date.
  3. For full functionality, clickers need to be registered to particular students/users and base stations. And specialized software needs to be downloaded onto personal devices whose settings must be configured so that they will reliably send responses.
  4. The reliability and performance of SRS can be severely reduced under less-than-ideal conditions in the room in which the devices are used – for example, when Wi-Fi or cell signals are weak.
  5. With most clickers and personal devices, SRS responses are limited to those that can be represented by a single letter/number such as true/false or multiple-choice questions, though a few SRS facilitate the use of short-answer, essay and other open-ended question formats.

However, these challenges and limitations are not insurmountable and not reasons to dismiss SRS out of hand. Next week’s SIP will discuss tips for successfully using SRS by addressing the concerns above.

Still thirsty? Take another SIP of this: student response systems

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