UMass Amherst: Personal Response System

It can be a challenge for even the most talented faculty to continuously engage students in large lecture sections. It is not uncommon for student attention to lag and attendance to drop during the term. Faculty frequently find it difficult to assess whether the class is comprehending new concepts and it is a challenge to accurately assess progress except with a quick show of hands.

At the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the campus is increasingly turning to a personal response system, InterWrite PRS from GTCO Calcomp, to increase the interactivity in large lecture sections. The personal response system uses wireless transmitters to provide quick student responses to questions posed by faculty. Each student in a classroom supporting the personal response system can enter a response to a faculty question projected at the front of the class using the numeric keypad on a wireless PRS transmitter. Student responses are automatically tabulated, giving the faculty member a much better sense of student understanding.

One faculty member central to the adoption of the personal response system is Richard Rogers, who teaches in the Department of Resource Economics. Professor Rogers uses the PRS to drive his statistics lecture and engage students. During each lecture, he asks questions to gather live data to use throughout his lecture, to gauge student understanding, and to introduce new topics. For example, when Rogers introduces students to probability, he has the students perform an experiment with coin tosses. Students enter the number of heads produced in four coin tosses using the numbers on their PRS transmitter. The InterWrite software graphs the responses, allowing Rogers to compare the relative frequencies to the theoretical probabilities. The quick results to in-class questions give immediate feedback to students and the professor, indicating whether a brief review it is needed.

Each student’s transmitter has a unique number, which ties the responses to an identifiable student. Thus, beyond responses to in-class queries and responses, professors can take attendance electronically by registering who responds to question asked throughout the class. Professors can also transfer the “grades” from questions asked during class to an electronic grade book.

Rogers asks up to eight questions per class period. Students receive 50 percent credit if they enter any answer, and the other 50 percent for the correct answer. This method gives students credit for participating while providing incentives for getting the question correct. Rogers found that his PRS scores closely resemble the distribution of exam scores.

During the last seven years, use of the PRS has expanded to the point that more than 8,500 students and 40 faculty members are using the system. The technology has spread throughout UMass and is now used in courses across the curriculum, including astronomy, art history, biology, chemistry, economics, finance, legal studies, nursing, physics, political science, and psychology. To match the growth, the campus has expanded the number of classrooms that support the system.

Students in classes that use PRS purchase a wireless transmitter from the campus bookstore just as they would buy books and other class materials. Transmitters cost $35 new or $27 used and there is a guaranteed buyback price of $17.

The response to the system from faculty and students has been positive. Professor Rogers’s course evaluations reveal that 90 percent of the students consider the PRS a success. Students cite the instant assessment they receive and report that their enjoyment of the course is enhanced by the PRS. They like instantly seeing their responses in the context of the other student responses and the subsequent comments from the professors.

UMass faculty members report increased attendance and more engaged, active learning in courses utilizing the system. Rogers, however, cautions that the PRS is not a panacea. Professors must ask thought-provoking questions to gain the benefits of the PRS. He further cautions that the PRS should not be considered an attendance tracking tool but rather “a teaching tool that improves attendance by making the lectures more effective.”

The use of the PRS is addressing the challenges of personalizing large lecture sections to better engage students in an active learning environment.

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