Classroom Response Systems | Viewpoint

Clicking with Middle School Science

Student response systems at Campbell County Middle School in Kentucky have allowed teachers to gauge student readiness on the fly, providing visibility into the strengths and weaknesses of individuals and whole classes.

The students who entered Doni Beaupre's sixth and seventh grade science classes each year might as well have walked in with great big red question marks dangling over their heads. Most of her students advanced into Beaupre's class from lower levels taught by a variety of other teachers, so she had no ready way of knowing how far along the students were in their science studies. Would the students need remediation? Were they advanced? Were they right on grade level? For Beaupre, as for the other 65 teachers at Campbell County Middle School in northern Kentucky, it was a guessing game as to what would be the best method for getting all students in the class on the same page.

The Campbell County Schools' technology director was meanwhile looking at new classroom technologies and decided to purchase a handful of audience response systems. Teachers were trained on the usage and benefits during an interactive workshop. The audience handheld device-based feedback and assessment tools became so popular that, soon, demand from enthusiastic teachers exceeded availability. After giving the system a test run, Beaupre and her students wanted a system of their own, and funds raised from class fund raisers intended to underwrite field trips and other activities were ultimately diverted to purchase a dedicated audience response system. "When I saw the benefits of the devices and the excitement in the kids' eyes, I let 89 students vote to either purchase a system for our class or use the money raised for the field trip and lab supplies. It was almost unanimous."

The particular system Beaupre uses is ResponseCard from Turning Technologies. Like some other systems, ResponseCard works with PowerPoint, allowing the teacher to integrate quizzes and poll responses into classroom presentations.

The interactivity solves several challenges for Beaupre, including the aforementioned challenge of gauging the levels of new students' learning.

Assessing New Pupil Levels
In the first days of the school year, she said, Beaupre lets the students acclimatize to the audience response system with non-threatening exercises that allow her to get to know students, that allow them to get to know each other, and that facilitate learning the use of the handhelds. She poses questions like, "What animal from this list do you like best?" and, "What is your favorite food?" "Do you have siblings?" "What sport would you choose to play?"

She is then able to get down to business and use the response devices as quick pre-assessment data collection tools. Normally, she explained, pre-assessment takes time: time spent making copies, grading, and passing back the assessments. The old method would take time away from activities that could have been spent toward grade-relevant activities. But the audience response system, she said, gives her the data she needs, presented in a visual representation, in about 45 minutes.

"I can see instantly which concepts the group as a whole understands and which we need to spend more time on," said Beaupre. "I do not want to waste my time or the students' time teaching something they already know. The data graphs say it all. I know when I close the polls what content I need to begin planning for, what I can skip, or what I can simply review if the class already understands the basic concepts."

For her 180 students in this year's classes, she began by polling her students' comprehension of the states of matter, assessing their knowledge of physical and chemical changes. "From the pre-assessment I learned that the majority of my students knew there were four states and knew solid, liquid, and gas," she said. "So I am planning a day to teach plasma and really go into great detail on physical versus chemical changes, since these were the areas in which they scored the weakest. Next year it may be different. I might have to start at the beginning and teach solid, liquid, and gas as well as plasma."

Using the System: The Mechanics
Questions designed and inserted by the teacher are embedded in PowerPoint slides. When questions appear on the projection screen, students use their devices, colloquially known as "clickers," to respond. Once all answers are in and the polls are closed, Beaupre then displays the bar graph showing what percentage of the class chose A, B, C, and D. Students are able to see the correct answer when appropriate and can gauge how their knowledge of the subject measures up against their classmates'.

Beaupre said there are 10 or so different display options, bar graphs being one. "I use a bar graph because it gives me the quickest data for evaluating where students are. The students like it too. After a few times [of seeing the system in action], students become excited to see how they compare," she said.

Step-by-Step Prep
Beaupre said she uses the audience response system to alleviate some of the shortcomings of more traditional summative testing, including the inability to gauge student proficiency in time to do anything about it. Beaupre can see how much of the class learned the material in aggregate and can use the results to see which particular students have fallen behind.

Beaupre has even learned to incorporate some fun using her response system. During her "pre-game" scrimmage (review before a test), students are divided into teams and then compete against each other. Teams may talk quietly among each other to assist with peer teaching. Once they agree on an answer, students click that response using the handheld. Again, said Beaupre, instant feedback provides a teaching opportunity not found in paper-based testing and bests pencil and paper tests when it comes to interactivity and engagement. "Students really enjoy the system, especially on game day," she said.

Game day, as she called it, is the last opportunity for pre-test assessment. "Students know the purpose is to review for a test or review the year so far," she explained. "It is a class-competitive approach to get everyone reviewing the lesson, and this method adds some peer pressure for everyone to really do their best."

She said game day results aren't counted as grades and, except for the fact the students learn, are purely for fun, presented in a trivia game style of play. Just as during pre-game, students are divided into teams. The questions appear on PowerPoint slides, and the teams have 60 seconds to discuss and lock in the answer.

"This opens up debate for tough questions," she said. "A team-mate might think the answer is A while someone else might think B. To be team players, everyone has to help the group decide the choice they believe to be most true."

The bar graph of answers is displayed after each question, and every five or six slides, she said, Beaupre inserts a slide that shows team standings.

"This format is more competitive and engaging than a typical study guide," she said. The process also helps students gauge their own progress and flag areas where they need further study. "During the review, students can jot down any questions they are unsure of," she said. The students can then focus more heavily on those questions while on their own, studying for the test.

She said the process also fosters insight into the effectiveness of her teaching. "I receive data with the charts to know where I literally need to stop and quickly re-teach a concept, or do a quick demonstration to clear up misconceptions. Rarely, I have an entire block who answers the question with 100 percent accuracy, and I have had occasions where 100 percent are incorrect. Those are the most teachable moments, but that is an obvious area of misconception."

This year, Beaupre said, she had one such moment. "A question I asked this year on weight was 100 percent inaccurate," she said. "Students had no idea that weight was a measurement (only a number) of the amount of mass of a piece of matter based on gravity. It was a perfect teachable moment for students to figure out why my weight would change on the moon but mass would stay the same."

"The instant feedback helps with retention of tricky concepts," added Beaupre.

What Teachers Can Expect
Can audience response systems replace any traditional systems, such as grading? Sorry, no, even though one of the reports of the audience response system automatically calculates grades. "It does not 'replace' traditional grading," said Beaupre. "I wish. But because state assessments and college entry assessments are paper and pencil, we must continue to get students ready for those types of assessments."

Beaupre said while the audience response system solves some challenges, the technology presents new ones as well. One of those challenges is time management.

"I have about 45-minute blocks, six times a day," she explained. Getting clickers in and out of students' hands is awkward and time-consuming at first. "Distributing the clickers is a challenge until students learn the system, and re-collecting them is a challenge until students learn the procedures. But after a few weeks, it runs pretty smoothly."

Another challenge is devoting the time necessary to create the presentations. "Just as with [ordinary] PowerPoint presentations, the slides can be as involved as you have time to make them."

The system itself can be daunting, not so much owing the learning curve, but more to the many possibilities. "The data can be overwhelming because there is so much you can print," she advised. "The best thing to do is take the time to learn what is available and what you really need. Time [spent] learning the system is the only real downside, but it's like riding a bike, once you got it you got it!"

Beaupre warned the systems can be expensive, too. "They are up to $1,000 for each system, but the companies usually offer multiple order discounts," she said. "That's how I was able to purchase mine."

Future Plans
The audience response system can spark new ideas for teaching. Beaupre, for example, is thinking of a new way to use the technology for this year's group of students. She wants to combine audience response with journaling. "The journal is a 'writing-to-learn' journal that students keep, like a design notebook or a lab notebook, for every lab we do or activity that requires follow up questions," she said. "I will display a question and students will either agree or disagree and will have five minutes to justify their choice by writing in their journals." She said the writing process itself can help them explore their understanding of the material.

She said the benefits of the audience response are well worth the literal and figurative price. "Wow, students really appreciate the data and use it. The instant feedback has been the most valuable benefit." Whereas teachable moments are lost during the time between testing and waiting for papers to be graded, audience response instant feedback closes that gap. "The instant feedback helps with retention of tricky concepts."

She added: "Students know instantly if they were right or wrong, and find out the correct answer instantly. They love it."