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Keeping Students Engaged with Classroom Assessments

"It used to be difficult to gauge students' prior knowledge," according to biology professor Peter Coppinger, who teaches at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. "But now, I can ask a question pertaining to the day's lecture material, get a response, and--right there--I can assess whether to slow down and cover [something] in great detail, or do a cursory overview and go on."

At Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, IN, one of the nation's top undergraduate engineering, science, and mathematics schools, Coppinger is using interactive software from DyKnow for his real-time class assessments, allowing students to quickly and anonymously respond to his questions.

Coppinger has gleaned his techniques, at least in part, from a book by Thomas Angelo and Patricia Cross called Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers (second edition). While the ideas in the book have been used for many years--the first edition came out in 1988--the method of assessing a classroom has changed, courtesy of technology. An instructor can now quickly poll a classroom, analyze the results, and fine-tune that day's lecture, all on the fly in a few minutes at the beginning of class. Answers can come in anonymously to help ensure honesty about the level of understanding.

Coppinger's collaborative classroom tool is called DyKnow Vision--software that runs on tablets or desktop computers and can be used for classroom communication between student and professor. DyKnow also allows students to view the lecture material and notes later from any computer with Internet access and includes features for chatting, searching, whiteboarding, and lecture capture.

Before he began using DyKnow, Coppinger said students sometimes complained in surveys that he covered material either too quickly or too slowly. To avoid this, he starts his lectures these days by asking students to answer a quick question or two. He then quickly scans through answers--students jot them on tablet computers at each seat--and gears his lecture accordingly.

Although DyKnow can be used on any computer, it's a clear fit with tablet computers, where its collaborative note-taking abilities shine. A handful of Rose-Hulman classrooms have tablet computers at each seat running DyKnow, along with a tablet computer issued to the instructor. After class, students can use DyKnow on their own non-tablet laptops, to view, search and replay their notes, and the instructor's, outside of class. Or, some students take their own laptops to class and use them there; Rose-Hulman has had a one-to-one laptop program since 1995.

On-the-fly polling isn't the only use of DyKnow in Coppinger's classes. Another of his favorite features is collaborative note-taking--a way for both professor and student to annotate the lecture's PowerPoint slides. "On any given DyKnow slide, I will highlight an area where I encourage students to take notes," Coppinger explained. "I will write elsewhere on the slide, and [leave space for] students to annotate. It really is collaborative note-taking." That method encourages students to do stop blindly transcribing Coppinger's lecture--which is what happens, he said, if he simply writes his own notes on each slides as he lectures.

A strength of systems like DyKnow, especially in complex subjects like biology and chemistry, is that they capture not just the end result, but the process. Unlike with paper notes, the steps in creating a chemistry equation or solving a math problem, for example, can be replayed again and again outside class. Tablets can be "grouped," so that students in a designated group can share information amongst themselves only.

Coppinger also used DyKnow for quick quizzes in which he offers two or three questions on a screen and ask students to write out and submit the answers right in class. It's proven useful for collaborative projects in which students team up in pairs and then submit their work to him. He sometimes asks a question, gathers student responses, and then goes through the anonymous written responses in class one by one, assessing what is right and wrong about each. "It's a way of keeping students engaged," he said.

The DyKnow training involved meeting a few times a week for a couple of weeks, then moving course material into the software. Coppinger lectures using a combination of white board notes and PowerPoint slides, using PowerPoint for complicated figures, supplemented with notes on the white board. For lectures, he inserts alternating blank slides--creating a white board, essentially--that allow him to add additional notes on his tablet computer right in DyKnow during the lecture.

Coppinger recently used DyKnow in a new way to record lectures. In a scheduling twist this semester, half of his students were scheduled for two classes at once and thus couldn't attend Friday lectures. The remedy: recording the lecture ahead of time, both the audio portion and his notes on each slide.

The ability to both listen and watch as Coppinger annotates slides is a huge benefit. "[Students] can watch me give the lecture, and see the slide annotated as I speak." In a biology class, in particular, it's important that students can see notes as they are written during the course of the lecture. "They can see pen-stroke by pen-stroke ... me drawing the path of an electron ... or how different proteins interact, and when. Students love this." Without hearing the explanation as he gradually marks up a slide, Coppinger said, "It would just be a confusing sketch."

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at [email protected].

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