Classroom engagement: A New Year’s goal checked off!

Students learning with technology

I attended college in an age of lectures. You know the student lecture mode. You go to class, listen to your professor lecture for an hour or more, frantically take notes, and then hope you can make some sense of those notes while trying to do your homework.

When I became a professor, I didn’t know much else to offer. Group work was popular, so I did incorporate group work assignments, usually as a review activity before an exam. My daily routine though, continued to be mostly lecture. I would call on students to answer specific questions – I tried to move around the room so everyone had a turn. It felt “fair,” but I’m sure it didn’t help those students who had math anxiety. It didn’t seem like enough.

Some of my colleagues across campus were using “clickers” so students could answer multiple choice questions during class. But because I was teaching a math class, I didn’t want multiple choice questions – I wanted the students solving and answering questions on their own, not guessing from a list of choices or working backwards. Think – Pair – Share was another technique I tried with relative success, but inevitably I still had up to 1/3 of the classroom sitting there quietly, not talking to anyone.

Along came Learning Catalytics: my classroom would never be the same. Learning Catalytics is a classroom response system that students can log in to with their phones or other web-enabled devices. Instead of just multiple-choice questions, there are 18 different question types.

This includes mathematical expressions, multiple graphing options, direction (think vectors), short answer, and many more. It was also quite simple to create my own questions directly from my notes for class, or I could choose from a vast library of existing questions already available.

I used to walk around the room while students had a practice problem to work on, seeing a handful of their work and having a vague overall idea of how the class was doing. Now I was able to see the responses from every student in one summary at my computer.

The real game changer though, came with the seating chart. It’s not assigned seating for the students per se; it is set up that they click on the seat they’re sitting in when joining the class session. While students are working and submitting answers, I’m able to see which areas of the classroom are struggling more (due to an increased number of incorrect responses). Now I can focus my “wandering” time with the students who are struggling with this topic, right now.

The real beauty with the seating chart though, comes with the ability to assign the students into groups to re-work a problem after discussing it with each other.

Let’s assume the “correct” responses are somewhere between 30% and 70%. With the click of a button, I can assign the students into groups of 3 for discussion and resubmission. There is even an option that students are group by “different” answers. This disperses the 30% or more of correct answers throughout the groups, so you can be almost certain that every group has at least one member who answered correctly.

Students discuss with each other and demonstrate how they solved the problem, and then they resubmit their answers. I regularly see the correct response rate to a question go from something around 40% correct to 80 or 90% correct – and I haven’t said a word! The change is from students working together.

My class is busy: students are moving around, getting their blood flowing, and everyone is engaged. Each person’s device tells them the name of the others in their discussion group and where they’re sitting with respect to them. I tell the students, “If you have their name, they have yours – don’t be rude! Get up and talk to each other.” Gone are the days of 1/3 of the class sitting quietly after you’ve asked them to “discuss with a neighbor!”

If the response rate is below 30%, depending on the topic, I might step back and do some more class discussion, as obviously the topic is not clear enough to them. If the response rate is over 70 or 80% correct, it’s probably worth moving forward, rather than spending the time to redo the problem in groups.

However, even in these cases, all the aggregated responses can be shared on the screen, including the incorrect ones. As a class, we’re able to discuss some of the errors made in the room, and how to avoid them, without any individual student being singled out.

Last term in my Linear Algebra class, there was a simple definition presented – I thought it was as straightforward as could be. I threw a simple concept check in Learning Catalytics expecting overwhelming correct answers – and to my surprise, less than half the students got it right. It was clearly time to review it again. It felt so good to know quickly that we needed to spend some more time on that topic.

Gone are the days of being unsure during class how well my students are grasping the topic of the day. I can find out on the spot and give them opportunities to actively work together to learn the material. Students are engaged, excited to come to class and interact with each other.

Is it a time investment in class? Yes, it is – but it’s well worth it. And for those doing Co-Requisites, what better way to help pace your pre-requisite content being covered. Topics with high correct response rates mean you are free to move along! And those with less, you’re able to spend more time on. Thank you to Learning Catalytics for helping transform my classroom!

Here’s a very brief video overview of what Learning Catalytics can bring to your classroom. And click here for Training and Support materials if you’d like to engage your students with Learning Catalytics.

About the author
Aaron Warnock

Aaron Warnock

Aaron has taught Mathematics at Highline College near Seattle, WA for the last 17 years. He has taught everything from Arithmetic & Algebra to Calculus, Differential Equations, and Linear Algebra. Aaron has been teaching online since 2010. Aaron was part of major curriculum redesign at Highline for the pre-college math sequence. The Dev Math team created pathways that helped students get through their math more effectively, as well as making the math more relevant to their everyday lives. Aaron loves using Learning Catalytics to foster an engaging environment in the classroom. In his free-time, Aaron enjoys all things gaming – both heavy strategy board games and console gaming with his kids.