Sunday, February 01, 2004

In-class response system

I mentioned in my last post that I was going to be requiring students to use transmitters in my zoology lecture to encourage participation, and a comment from a dedicated reader has encouraged me to describe how they work in more detail. I should preface this post by saying that I have yet to use this system in a classroom – I've only seen it demonstrated at a conference, though I am in the process of installing it.

The system I'll be using is a wireless "personal response system" (PRS) manufactured by EduCue. Students purchase a transmitter and then use it to respond to questions posed by the instructor. The questions can be either multiple choice or numeric in answer. The transmitter has a number pad and buttons that can be used by students to rate how confident they are in their answers. The answers are stored and displayed in real-time on a central computer in the room (Mac or PC) and each transmitter contains a unique code, so the system is able to track each student's response. I believe the transmitters cost ~$40 individually from EduCue, though I'm bundling them with a Prentice Hall textbook which reduces the cost to ~$15 per transmitter for the students. Bookstores can repurchase the transmitters, so the actual cost to the students can be relatively low. I know some schools have purchased sets of receivers for a room, and then distribute the transmitters during class.

As with any transmitter, you need a receiver. The EduCue receivers I'm using hook up to a serial port and each receiver is supposed to handle ~40 transmitters at once, so for a larger class you must daisy-chain a number of units together. The receivers need to be spread around the classroom since they work on a line-of-sight basis with the transmitters. I'll be installing 4 receivers in my lecture hall, with a few decameters of cabling going around the room hooking them all together. If cabling isn't your thing, they also sell wireless transmitters.

One of the reasons I went with EduCue's system was that the publisher of my textbook gave a discount on the transmitters for the students and included the necessary receivers and software for free with a large enough order. There are other manufacturers of similar systems out there; a friend in Texas uses a system by I haven't compared the systems, so can't say much about the competition.

I'm planning on using a mix of basic content review questions, content extrapolation questions (going one step beyond what I just introduced), and content introduction questions (to motivate curiosity in the upcoming topic). To reward students for using the system, each question will be worth 1 point, with each answer being worth a full point (whether right or wrong); I'll scale the total possible points to about 8% of the points in the class. I was pondering a grading system where wrong answers were worth 0.5 points and correct answers were worth 1 point, but thought this might create a high-stress pop quiz atmosphere and encourage cheating, which would cancel out the positive aspects of the system (I'm intending it to be a low-stress self-evaluation tool for students that provides an honest real-time assessment of student understanding for the instructor).

Hopefully by using this system I'll motivate every student in the room to consider the questions being asked, and thus encourage them to think critically about the material being covered. I've asked questions and attempted discussions in my large lectures in the past (even using a program to randomly call on students), but in a hall of 170 students I got vastly less than half the class paying attention during these times.

I'll be installing the receivers and software in the room this coming week, and will provide updates on how everything works. I'm quite curious how the students will respond to the system ... it's not cheap for them, but I have high hopes that it will help significantly and they'll enjoy it.

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