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Classroom response systems ease discussion and assessment

March 28, 2012

Librarians who teach are always looking for ways to get patrons more actively engaged in instruction sessions. Research has shown that active learning can have positive effects on student learning and certainly helps to get students to reflect on the application of what they’re learning. In large lecture classes, most active learning exercises simply aren’t feasible, making it difficult to avoid the “sage on the stage” model of teaching. In addition to active learning, librarians also frequently seek simple ways to assess learning so they can improve their teaching.

Instructors are increasingly turning to classroom response systems as a way to get students actively engaged in class and collect useful feedback or assessment data. Classroom response technologies allow faculty to poll classes and get anonymous aggregate responses. Polling can be useful as formative assessment to tailor instruction to where students currently are, or as summative assessment to get a sense of how well the class learning outcomes were achieved. Librarians use classroom polling tools as icebreakers, for pre- and post-tests, and to get feedback on their teaching.

The most common classroom response system is the clicker, a small remote control–like device that sends student responses wirelessly to the instructor’s receiver and then displays them on a slide. Clickers are a popular option for collecting student feedback, but they require a financial outlay that many libraries can’t afford or may not want to make without knowing if clickers are a good fit. Fortunately, there are tools that allow libraries to create classroom response activities for free, capitalizing on technologies the students already have with them.

Poll Everywhere is free online polling software that allows students to use text messaging or a web form to answer questions during class. The answers, in aggregate, are updated in real time on a PowerPoint slide or the website itself. Poll Everywhere can provide valuable feedback for the instructor and opportunities for students to be active and share their thoughts during the session. Since there is also a web-based interface for responses, Poll Everywhere can be used in schools where cellphones are banned.

The librarians at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, experimented with Poll Everywhere and found that not only did it open up valuable opportunities for classroom discussion but that students were excited by the novelty. Emerging Technologies Librarian and Information Tyrannosaur blogger Andy Burkhardt said of the trial, “It gives people a sense of control and people appreciate when they are asked for their opinion. It’s not simply someone telling them what to think.”

However, polling doesn’t enable students to provide individualized feedback or ask questions. Some faculty members have used Twitter as a classroom backchannel for student comments or questions, but it’s less than ideal since many students don’t want to mix their personal Twitter accounts with schoolwork, and don’t want to broadcast their classroom responses to the world.

Wiffiti is another free technology for capturing the classroom backchannel. Wiffiti creates a digital pinboard to which people can add comments anonymously via a web form, text message, or via Twitter with a hashtag. All of the messages show up on the board, which can be embedded on a website or digital display. Wiffiti can be used for collecting student feedback about the lecture throughout the class, or individual screens can be used for getting answers to specific discussion questions. It could even be used for students to provide answers to problem-based classroom activities. Anonymous response systems like Wiffiti can give students who feel uncomfortable asking questions and taking part in classroom discussions the confidence to share their ideas and questions without speaking publicly.

Of course, classroom response systems aren’t the only option for incorporating active learning into instruction, but they can be useful tools for meeting certain pedagogical goals. Sounds pretty engaging!

MEREDITH FARKAS is head of instructional services at Portland (Oreg.) State University. She is also part-time faculty at San José State University School of Library and Information Science. She blogs at Information Wants to Be Free and created Library Success: A Best Practices Wiki. Contact her at librarysuccess[at]