Using Feedback to Guide Use of Student Response Systems
(e.g., "Clickers")

Flashlight Online log-in l About Flashlight Online  l  Handbook and Other Materials  l F-LIGHT 
Training, Consulting & External Eval. l Student Course Evaluation l FAQ

Introduction l Activities for which SRSs can be Used l Study Designs l Matrix Survey l Flashlight Evaluation Handbook

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1. Introduction; Technologies and Facilities

A student response system (SRS) provides a way for a faculty member (and usually students) to get information from all students in the course, usually in real time. SRSs have special value in larger courses, where all students can't be quickly questioned one at a time. Personal response may be gathered in many ways.  In physical classrooms, the feedback is often provided through handheld consoles ("clickers") but laptops and even cell phones could e used. In virtual classrooms, conferencing systems, survey systems, shared whiteboards, and other software provide options for student feedback and voting. These options are discussed, with examples, in TLT Group subscriber materials on learning space design.

This Handbook section describes evaluative studies that can help increase the benefits of an investment in personal response systems.  Section I and II of this chapter summarize some of the material on student response systems from the Learning Space Design part of our web site.

II. Activities for which SRSs can be Used

A Flashlight approach to formative evaluation of personal response systems begins with this question: what's the educational activity? There are several families of activities for which SRSs are commonly used:

  1. Stimulating deeper exploration of difficult ideas. This pattern of using a SRS combines a) conceptually challenging questions that can't be answered by simple memorization or calculation, b) Peer instruction (students are asked the question, see the course response, confer with a partner, and then respond again).  It's this pattern of using 'clickers' that has produced impressive, lasting learning gains. (One of many attributes of clickers that makes them a good tool for this: the safety of anonymity or semi-anonymity. That's especially useful when the questions are politically or socially controversial.) Note: many faculty use SRSs to poll students on questions that have no single right answer, including questions of opinion and judgment, e.g., how credible was the evidence cited in the student presentation you just heard?
  2. Asking questions to see who remembers what they read in the homework or remembers what they just heard in the lecture, (e.g., "which of the following is the equation of simple harmonic motion? Which of the following motions can be described with the equation of simple harmonic motion?" 
  3. Grading student progress with paperless quizzes and tests (when the system creates a record of each student's response)
  4. Taking attendance (ditto)
  5. Gauging progress and agreement/disagreement: Allowing students to see how their understanding and opinions relate to those of the other students in the course.

Most of the foregoing activities can have two simultaneous goals:

  1. Encourage the student to do the activity that is being measured (e.g., do the reading, think about what has been read or heard, pay attention the lecture) and
  2. Provide guidance to help the instructor figure out what to do next (e.g., if a point seems well understood, build on it; if students have differing interpretations of a reading, stage a debate or some other test of those interpretations).

III. Study Designs

Here a few types of study that could be useful in increasing the benefits of SRS use at your institution:

I. Test your assumptions about the activities in use.  Do students interpret and react to the activity as you hope? as you fear?  Click here to see a prototype Flashlight Online 2.0 survey for gathering feedback for this purpose.  Click here to see materials for a faculty workshop. Its goal: help faculty quickly and easily do such studies with their own students in order to improve their own use of personal response systems.

2. Look for factors that may be hindering some students from engaging fully and effectively in the activity.  Does the student have the SRS? does it work? if the SRS is being used to discover whether the student remembers what was read, a key question is whether the student did the reading and, if not, why not.  This kind of diagnosis is designed to help instructors change some of the factors that hinder involvement and thereby increase the percentage of students who can successfully engage in the activity. In a future rewrite of this chapter, we'll include more examples of such feedback questions (perhaps questions that you send us!)

3. Study the suitability of technology for the activity: if some people at your institution are already using SRSs in one of these ways, ask faculty and students to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the technology for this particular activity, or components of the activity. For example, faculty and student doing Activity B ('interactive engagement') above might be asked to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the current technology as a way of displaying patterns of student thinking, and to suggest ways of better displaying patterns of student thinking.

4. Compare a course or course using personal response system with a course/courses that don't use the technology. The value of a SRS will be realized only if students act and think differently in a course. So it should be possible to compare such activities across courses, to see if those activities really are influenced. This Flashlight Online 1.0 item bank is designed for that purpose (ZS70578)

5. Study the role of SRS use in learning gains. Many studies have illustrated important learning gains from Activity B ('interactive engagement'). To get ideas for study designs, do a web or library search on 'interactive engagement.' 

  • Micro studies: These are studies that occur within a course and focus on the immediate value-added of this use of a SRS.  Dennis Jacobs of Notre Dame has been studying how student responses converge toward correct answers as discussions continue.
  • Macro studies: These studies might focus on the long-term development of understanding of a set of concepts and look at SRS use along with other instructional activities as ways of developing understanding. For example, the investigator might compare learning gains as they relate to the frequency of use of SRS for interactive engagement over a period of time. Or the investigator might ask students to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of such activity for learning this set of skills and insights. The investigator could also see whether different types of students respond differently: the students with the greatest and least learning gains? by gender? by standardized test score?

6. Study reliability and costs. During a pilot test, it's especially important to look at what it takes to keep the technology working at high levels of reliability with low levels of support.  The investigator should gather information about 'down time' from the student point of view as well as from faculty. It's also likely to be useful to study uses of time that are seen as wasteful: faculty, students, and IT support staff.

We would like to develop this chapter by adding case studies from institutions using personal response systems. Network member institutions might like to use some of their consulting time to have us work with them, or for them, to do such studies.  In the process we can develop survey templates and other research tools that can be re-used, as well as publishing our findings.

-Stephen C. Ehrmann, Flashlight Program

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Flashlight Evaluation Handbook Table of Contents


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