Getting the point across in new ways

Jung Choi

Associate Professor of Biology Georgia Institute of Technology

One of the greatest challenges for a teacher or instructor is to discern what students are actually learning and thinking. All teachers have the experience of expounding on a key topic, with wonderful images, diagrams, and examples, only to find out on the subsequent test that half the class completely missed the point. With classroom response systems, teachers don't have to wait until the exam; they can find out within minutes, and try other ways of getting the point across.

We began using clickers several years ago in our large Intro Biology classes, and found them particularly useful in pre- and post-instruction assessment and for exposing student misconceptions. But infrared clickers had limited range and capacity, and we were restricted to lecture halls that were outfitted with the receivers. A switch to RF technology with USB receivers allowed us to use them in any classroom, but we still had occasional issues with dead spots in large lecture halls. We also found some students who had multiple clickers, so their friends who skipped class would get credit for class participation. As we began to incorporate case studies, and especially after I adopted the flipped class model, the restriction to multiple-choice questions began to seem confining. If we want students to engage in a variety of activities during class, surely they should be answering a variety of question types.

This past year, in the 200-student Intro Biological Principles class in the fall and in the 30-student Developmental Biology class in the spring, I used Learning Catalytics (LC) as the classroom response system. I and essentially all of my colleagues who had been using clickers switched to LC because we thought the added benefits were well worth the extra work. A few of the benefits from my point of view:

  1. Learning Catalytics is a step towards open education. Yes, it is a commercial product and costs money. However, instructors who write questions can make them available to other instructors anywhere in the world via the question database. All of the questions I have written are in the database, and I have found a number of wonderful questions—and inspiration for other questions—in the database.
  2. Learning Catalytics enables student sketches, drawing, and graphing. Student sketches or drawings can be viewed individually or as composite sketches. You can ask students to graph onto axes that you provide, or finish incomplete illustrations. I found this a truly powerful tool, that I need to exploit more. A framework allows comparisons among the student drawings and identifying common patterns. Students can engage with diagrams and illustrations in other ways, by identifying a correct region of a figure, or drawing a directional vector arrow.
  3. Asynchronous modes for group work on problem sets, case studies. In the asynchronous modes, students can access all of the questions and answer them in any order. This is useful for homework, but also for flipped class sessions where groups of students can work through a case study or a set of problems at their own pace. The instructor can see student progress in real-time, and see what questions are posing the greatest difficulties. For short-answer or long-answer questions, I could see when students were misinterpreting a question or when they needed more information, and I could intervene. I could also see on the seat map which groups of students were struggling, and wander around the classroom to provide help.
  4. A seat map facilitates group formation for peer discussion, and for identifying groups of students who need help. Students indicate at the start of each session where in the classroom they are sitting. With one click on the instructor screen, Learning Catalytics uses this information to group students, and student receive information as to whom they should pair with to discuss the question and respond again. The instructor can also view the seat map to see which students got a question right or wrong.
  5. The team mode provides IF-AT (immediate feedback assessment technique) capability. I have tried this a few times, and this provokes intense discussion. At the start of the session, students form teams (they register a team name). Then they answer questions individually. During the team round, only one member of each team answers the questions. If the team gets the correct answer in the first try, the team gets maximum credit. If the first answer is wrong, they have to try again until they get to the correct answer. Each attempt reduces the credit for the team. At the conclusion of the team round, everyone knows the correct answers. Scores are tabulated as a weighted average of the individual and team scores.
  6. Multiple other question types provide variety and engage higher order Bloom's taxonomy skills. Learning Catalytics has a total of 18 different question types; in addition to the question formats above, I have also used matching, ranking, highlighting, numerical, confidence, and priority questions.

My own experience is that I can see what percentage of students have responded to each question and can pace the class appropriately to keep students engaged: wandering around the class, I saw that laptop screens were on Learning Catalytics, with very few exceptions.

What's the downside? I've talked with my colleagues on campus and other faculty at other universities who have used Learning Catalytics. Wifi bandwidth can be a challenge; one instructor at another university told me that they have to have students choose just one device (laptop or phone) and turn off their other devices. Some instructors will worry that students will use their laptops or cell phones for web surfing, texting or other off-task purposes during class, but I think it's up to the instructor to keep the students engaged and on task. Even without laptops or cell phones, students found ways to disengage, whether it's exchanging notes, talking to each other, doing homework for another class, playing cards, or reading the newspaper. My own experience is that I can see what percentage of students have responded to each question and can pace the class appropriately to keep students engaged: wandering around the class, I saw that laptop screens were on Learning Catalytics, with very few exceptions.

I have NOT had any issues with students not having a device. Georgia Tech does have a laptop requirement. But it's also rare that a student does not have a smartphone. The situation may be different at other colleges or universities, but with cell phone providers increasingly pushing smartphones, and the availability of cheap laptops and tablets for less than the cost of a textbook (or a new clicker), this issue will disappear entirely. In fact, I previously experienced almost daily issues with one or two students forgetting to bring their clickers. I had not one student come to me this past year about forgetting to bring a device for Learning Catalytics.

My own experience has been that LC involved less effort (no software to download and install, no additional infrastructure, no clicker registration) and was an easier transition than first adopting clickers, or transitioning from one clicker brand to another. And student response to Learning Catalytics has been overwhelmingly positive. Seniors and even a graduate student in my Developmental Biology class saw the value and thought Learning Catalytics absolutely rocked compared to clickers. My favorite comment is from a freshman in the Intro class:

I like the way the professors let us engage in the class by solving learning catalytics questions. I wonder if other biology professors are using [these] methods too. If not I will be disappointed.

A longer version of this story appeared on Jung Choi's blog as Learning Catalytics and the Flipped Class.