Response Devices Keep FSU Students Focused

By Linda L. Briggs

Attendance is up and the number of students dozing off in class is down in J'e Calhoun’s economics classes at Florida State University (FSU). And that’s despite an increase in class size recently, with new lecture halls that seat up to 500 students at a time.

Calhoun has had great success in boosting attendance and keeping students engaged through use of personal response systems, or PRS – commonly called clickers – that require students to answer periodic questions throughout class. Answers are totaled immediately, giving Calhoun the ability to gauge who is present, and when he needs to explain a topic more thoroughly.

The devices, InterWrite PRS clickers from GTCO CalComp, cost $50 per device. Each student is responsible for purchasing a clicker from the bookstore at the beginning of a school year. The bookstore guarantees it will purchase it back at year’s end for $25.

According to Calhoun, who is assistant director of the Stavros Center for Economic Education at FSU, and a lecturer in the Department of Economics, the devices have increased attendance in his classes from roughly 60 percent previously, to 85 percent or better now. Although he’s quick to say he’s made other modifications as well and thus can’t attribute that 25 percent bump to the devices alone, they’ve definitely had an impact.

Calhoun uses the clickers periodically during class to assess attendance, gauge understanding of a subject, ensure that students are paying attention, and simply make class more fun. Ten percent of grades come from PRS responses. He d'esn’t want the devices to be any more important in grading than that, he says, since he intends them simply “to be interactive and keep students engaged.”

Since the PRS devices were successfully introduced into the economics department several semesters ago, FSU has extended them to ten of its lecture halls. They’re now used at the university with a wide range of subjects, including physics, economics, math, biology, geography, sociology, geology, nursing, and chemistry.

The idea for the clickers came a year and a half ago, when the economics department moved into a new classroom building and shifted to offering consistently larger classes. To forestall issues around keeping student interest in large lecture halls, Calhoun and his colleagues discussed how to engage students better. “None of use wanted to just walk into a room with 500 students,” he says, “lecture with [Microsoft] PowerPoint, and let them go at the end of the day.”

After consulting with the IT department, Calhoun and his colleagues selected the InterWrite PRS device. During class, Calhoun’s PC runs InterWrite software; the devices connect to the PC via radio frequency, so there’s no line-of-sight requirement, as with infrared clickers. Each PRS includes a small screen that tells students how they’ve responded and let’s them confirm their choice. Results are collected and pop up on Calhoun’s screen for display to the class within a minute and a half, he says.

Calhoun has found numerous advantages to using the instant response system. Not only can he measure whether students are paying attention, he can determine if he’s explained a point well. “That’s the secondary benefit,” he says. “It’s feedback for me… If only 40 percent answered the question correctly, maybe it’s just as much my fault as theirs.”

He also uses the clickers to test out exam questions on students—something he tells them he’ll be doing throughout the course. Since posting the class response to a question often generates discussion, he can often determine whether a question – or one of the answer choices – was confusing. “When [just] 30 percent answer correctly,” Calhoun says, that tells him that “maybe it’s a bad question…or wasn’t worded correctly. That’s happened quite a bit.”

The devices also create a sort of class camaraderie. Calhoun says that displaying the class’s responses to his questions – he asks from four to eight during a typical class – brings out a team spirit in students. When he posts a results graph that shows most students have answered his question correctly, “a small cheer g'es out. They really get vested in the results.”

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