Technology keeps students tuned in during lectures

bha Bhattarai

Calculus professor Martina Bode uses “clickers” – handheld devices that allow students to answer professors’ questions electronically – to encourage participation in class. Suzanne Olds, an engineering professor, uses the devices to gauge whether she’s moving through material too quickly. Engineering professor Bill White uses them for quizzes.

All three instructors use the Personal Response System, which allows clickers to send infrared signals to a central receiver that displays the responses on a screen.

Bode and Olds require students to purchase clickers from InterWrite, but White’s classes use a product from H-ITT. By this fall the university hopes to settle on just one brand that professors can opt to use.

Academic Technologies and the Searle Center for Teaching Excellence are considering factors such as portability, cost, durability and battery life in deciding on a campus-wide system, said Mary Schuller, an Academic Technologies support specialist.

A universal system at Northwestern would make it easier to track software updates and train faculty members, Schuller said.

Using a campuswide system would also encourage campus bookstores to offer PRS buyback policies for students, she said. The cost of the devices, usually $40 to $55, may decrease if the university buys them wholesale.

The move toward a centralized system is part of a larger initiative to persuade professors to incorporate clickers in their classes. The Searle Center offered a faculty training workshop last week, and Schuller said the university hopes to offer similar programs in the future.

Bode, who has been using PRS for three years, said it helps her transform an otherwise “dry lecture” into an interactive experience for her 70 calculus students.

“There’s an entertainment factor and a game show factor, and it certainly brings a lot of positive energy to the classroom,” Schuller said.

Bode said she constantly experiments with new brands of clickers – she’s currently on her fifth model – to ensure students are working with the best product available.

Many students, particularly those in science, engineering and math classes, have been using clickers for several years and said the devices help them learn faster.

“It keeps us focused,” McCormick freshman Yared Ogunro said. “A lot of people zone out during class and don’t really follow along, but this forces you to participate. Plus, it’s kind of fun.”

Some students said they had some reservations about the technology. Weinberg freshman Megan Ross said software glitches keep the clickers from working.

“They’re fun, but it seems like they don’t work a lot of the time,” Ross said, adding that she’s used three different kinds of clickers this year. She said she doesn’t prefer one brand over another because “they all do the same thing.”

Olds, who has been using clickers for the last three years, said she didn’t realize how helpful they were until hers stopped working one day.

“(Raising hands) just didn’t work as well,” Olds said. “Half the (students) were looking around, others were flipping through their notebooks. Half of them ended up not voting. The clicker makes it much easier.”

Bode said using PRS has forced her to alter her teaching style. The time she spends preparing for lectures has “roughly tripled” in the last three years, and she said she’s become more attuned to students’ needs.

“When you form multiple-choice questions for the clickers, you have to put yourself in the students’ shoes,” she said.

“Not only are students more focused, but the system (also) forces professors to be better prepared.”

Reach Abha Bhattarai at [email protected]