Oct 31 2006

Tips for Using Audience Response Systems in the Classrom from Purdue

Purdue University uses classroom audience response systems that boost student participation and help faculty spice up their presentations.

Purdue utilizes classroom audience response systems to boost student participation and help faculty spice up their presentations.

In the past, confused students who didn't understand a lecture had two options: They could sit silently and remain perplexed, or summon the courage to raise their hands and tell the professor. Now there's a new, less-intimidating alternative: remote controls.

With hundreds of students stuffed into large lecture halls, it's tough for reserved students to shout out questions. To deal with that problem during lectures, assistant communication professor Erina MacGeorge uses newly installed technology–an audience response system–to poll her Purdue University students to make sure that they understand the concepts she's teaching. She asks questions, they click answers on remote controls, and the results are quickly tabulated on a classroom computer and shown on a projector screen.

“If I see a 50/50 split on a true-false question, it's a good indication that I need to review,” MacGeorge says. “I either went too fast or didn't explain very well.”

With the new system, she can tell students the correct answer and explain why it's right, and that has led to students being more willing to speak up in class. “Someone will raise a hand and say, 'I don't understand this part of it' or 'Hey, what about this?'" MacGeorge explains. “It gets a dialogue going.”

The technology, also known as classroom or personal response systems, provides professors with immediate feedback on student comprehension, and also engages students and stimulates classroom discussions–something even the most dynamic professors find hard to do in large audience settings. Audience response systems also allow faculty to administer in-class quizzes and take attendance electronically without wasting valuable class time reading every name.

Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., is among the first schools to install a new generation of wireless audience response systems throughout their campuses. While the concept of the technology isn't new, the wireless part is.

Purdue first installed a wired response system in one classroom in 1996, but the equipment was expensive and time-consuming to maintain. It required IT staff to retrofit the classroom with wiring and spend considerable time replacing broken response pads.

In recent years, vendors have built less-expensive infrared systems. Most recently, vendors have shipped new wireless systems that run on the 2.4-gigahertz (GHz) portion of the radio spectrum, which Purdue standardized on this year. The technology includes remote controls or “clickers” that students use to give answers; an electronic receiver that captures the students' answers; and software installed in classroom computers that runs the whole system.

Purdue installed the technology in 215 of 276 classrooms in its West Lafayette campus this summer. In all, 6,284 students are using the equipment at the West Lafayette campus, and 1,288 are using it at the Calumet, Fort Wayne and North Central campuses. On average, the technology is used in classes with about 100 students.

Many professors, particularly those in agriculture, liberal arts and science, embrace the technology and applaud its benefits. When physics professor David Elmore uses it to quiz students, he shows the students the combined tally of their answers, but he doesn't give the correct answer right away. He asks students to discuss it first, so they learn from each other.

“Before, my lectures were silent,” says Elmore, who spent a week learning to use the system. “A few would raise their hands, but many were afraid to contribute. Now, the energy level goes way up. There's a lot of noise. It's amazing.”

Exploring the Technology

Purdue explored purchasing the technology last year when a handful of professors approached the IT department about installing response systems from various companies in their classrooms, recalls John Campbell, Purdue's associate vice president for teaching and learning technologies. Campbell felt it was important to standardize on one vendor.

“I had visions of students wearing a holster to hold different clickers from multiple vendors,” Campbell says. “If that happens, no one wins.”

Because of faculty interest, the technology was an easy sell to university administrators, he says. The provost approved funds for the initial purchase and ongoing maintenance costs.

The opportunity to improve instruction in large classes is worth the price, Campbell says. As it is on other university campuses, many introductory courses taken by freshmen and sophomores are held in large lecture halls.

“There was an innate understanding of how this could help the big classrooms,” he says. “The educational impact is where you get the return on investment. Anecdotally, we've seen better classroom attendance and some evidence of higher grades.”

The vendor gave Purdue an alternative to buying the system, but the university would have had to charge every student a subscription fee of $15 per semester. Administrators didn't want to burden students with extra fees beyond the cost of the remote controls, which are priced at $12 to $16, Campbell adds.

During the past school year, about 20 Purdue professors joined the IT staff in testing five infrared and wireless systems. They unanimously chose a wireless system.

Ed Evans, Purdue's director of learning spaces and manager of the project, says the infrared systems had too many disadvantages: Each of the infrared receivers handles only 50 to 80 students, requiring multiple receivers in large classrooms and lecture halls. The receivers also require connections to power outlets, forcing IT staff to get creative by stringing power cords to the few classroom outlets available. And while the infrared systems are wireless, they're not user-friendly because students have to point their clickers at the correct angles to get their answers to register.

In comparison, the new wireless systems operating on the radio spectrum handle up to 1,000 clickers, so only one receiver is needed per classroom, Evans says. The wireless receivers plug into the USB port of classroom computers without requiring any extra power.

How It Works

Faculty members need training, but the system is not difficult to use, says MacGeorge, who uses the technology in two-thirds of her sessions for her research methods and theory classes. She grades students for participation and gives credit through their responses with the remote controls. “It's motivation to get them to class,” she explains.

MacGeorge prepares her questions in advance, using the audience response system's software in her office computer. She types in questions and answers and saves the information on the network drive, so she can pull up the questions on her classroom computer. When she launches the software in class, she has to instruct the program to track every student's individual answers and store the data.

Students answer by pressing the alphanumeric keypad on their remote controls. When they're done, a screen pops up showing the results. The technology can collect up to 1,000 responses in seven seconds.

“It's mostly seamless,” MacGeorge says. “I have to remember to click on the right things to save the data, and I have to make sure I back up a copy on the network drive, so I can open it on my office computer later. There's some back and forth to it, but it's not difficult.”

Early Mistakes

Initially, students registered their remote controls for classes through the vendor's Web site. But that caused confusion because students sometimes registered using their nicknames, making it hard for faculty to figure out who was who, Campbell says.

The vendor solved the problem by integrating the registration process into the university's course management system. Now, students use the course management system to locate their professor's class, find their name and type in their remote control's serial number, he says.

The university's two bookstores were initially unprepared for the onslaught of students purchasing remote controls last spring when Purdue was testing the equipment, Campbell adds. About 3,000 students needed clickers, but there was a shortage when the semester started.

The problem was two-fold: Some faculty forgot to put in their orders, and bookstore managers ordered small quantities because they feared the clickers wouldn't sell.

The problem was caused by the fact that no one from the university called the bookstores to explain that students were required to purchase the clickers, Campbell says. The IT staff quickly explained the situation to the bookstores, which stocked up within days.

Future Improvements

This year the IT staff is further integrating the audience response system with the university's course management system, so students' answers are automatically entered into the course management system's grade books. “Right now it takes one or two clicks for the two systems to talk, and we want to make it seamless,” Evans says.

To encourage more professors to use the system, the IT staff is making presentations to faculty and offering training. Campbell expects usage to eventually increase from the current 6,300 to as many as 20,000 of the 38,000 students at the West Lafayette campus.

Elmore, who has introduced the technology to his physics colleagues, says professors need to realize that traditional lectures–in which they talk and students listen–no longer work.

“Students fade out,” Elmore points out. “This technology keeps them active. They feel like they're contributing, and it makes them feel better about being in class.”

Tips on Using Audience Response Systems

Here's some advice from Purdue on the best ways to use audience response systems in colleges and universities:

If you standardize, that's attractive to the vendor, and it gives you more leverage to negotiate.–John Campbell, associate vice president for teaching and learning technologies

Consider how you will support the devices that are possessed by students. It was our first foray into personally owned devices. Dedicate IT staff for support, and equip faculty and students with online documentation to troubleshoot.–Ed Evans, director of learning spaces

You'll need a minimum of five minutes to ask three or four questions, and that assumes the questions don't require a lot of computation and that you don't have to do follow-up after each question. It's tough to cut material from a lecture, so view it as a challenge to convey the essential material more efficiently. Many students will retain more from answering questions than they will from five more minutes of lecturing.–Erina MacGeorge, assistant professor, Department of Communication

Stock a lot of AA batteries because students need them for the clickers.–Joe Martin, textbook manager, University Bookstore

Audience response systems
can collect up to 1,000 responses in seven seconds.

Purdue University

Founded: 1869
Enrollment: 69,098 (38,712 on main campus)
Location: West Lafayette, Ind.
Nickname: Boilermakers (A local reporter used the term “Boiler Makers” in an article after Purdue trounced Wabash College 44-0 in 1891.)
Mascot: The Boilermaker Special V (replica of a train locomotive)

Wylie Wong is a veteran technology reporter based in Phoenix.