We finally managed to get Trevor Nesbit to stay in one place long enough to give a talk to the lab group this week. He’s been visiting from the University of Canterbury since the start of December, but has been disappearing off to conferences and on visits hither and thither since.

Trevor’s research stems from his teaching experience. He started out teaching small classes of less than 50 students, and then more recently moved to teaching classes with 200+. He found that some of the techniques that were extremely useful in smaller classes (e.g. small group work, where one member of the group feeds back to the rest of the class) really didn’t work in these larger settings. In fact, as a baseline for his later work he ran an experiment, with a group exercise just before a 10 minute break in the 2 hour lecture that was supposed to be reported back on after the break. Of the 300 students in the class, only 80(!) turned up after the break.

So Trevor has been looking at ways to use what he calls “Prevailing Personal Social Communication Technologies” to overcome some of these difficulties and increase engagement in larger lectures. He started by creating a system that allowed students to use free text messages to anonymously send responses to the lecturer, who can select which to share. This gets past the problem of inappropriate responses! Trevor has used this system in a number of tests, from asking for just the names and favourite colours, through to working out numerical answers to problems and generating an “ask the audience”-style frequency chart, and on to reporting back from small groups.

He and his collaborators have noticed some interesting long-term effects of using this kind of anonymous feedback mechanism:

  • the inappropriate responses tailed off. They weren’t high to start with at around 4 out of 70+, but (possibly because they weren’t getting through) they stopped as the term continued.
  • they started getting other feedback that was useful, such as “please speak up” and “you’re going too fast”. These aren’t things that people are likely to be comfortable with saying in front of 300 of their peers, but the system allowed them a way to communicate.
  • after a few weeks using the system the groups appear to be happier to participate in general, not just via their mobiles. Hands-up style votes often only get around 20% of the group participating, whereas all the lecturers using the system saw an increase.
  • there was anecdotal evidence that the students were helped by seeing the feedback from other students, particularly when they were asked to explain how they had reached a solution.

The phone-based technology is slightly clunky and difficult , and an obvious change is to use smart phones. A group of third year students have developed a web app to do roughly the same thing in a less clunky manner. Trevor has plans to use this with classes in the coming year, with more formal measures of class engagement now that the system is more established. He also mentioned that care needs to be taken to design the participation exercises carefully – just as in smaller classes.

Ben wondered if there was any way to link the results of the students to their use of the tool, but Trevor said that as the experiment was to run on subsequent cohorts there may be some underlying differences between the cohorts that could affect the results. There is already a well-documented link between engagement and improved performance, so that is less important than proving an increase in engagement. Ben suggested that maybe you could compare the students who sent messages to the students who didn’t, but Liz pointed out that this gets into the debate about the value for lurkers, who may gain a lot from observing the participation of others without participating themselves. The group suggested that there could be a lot of value in the anonymity of the system not only for asking “stupid” questions, but also for the people who are seen as always sticking their hands up!

Trevor said they’d had a “bit of hassle” with earthquakes in Christchurch. Fingers crossed for some smooth sailing to pursue this research (and maybe rebuild!).

This was the final meeting of term, and so it was only fitting that Edgar provided us with some of his fabulous food. Cochinita sandwiches all round. Truly delicious, thanks Edgar! And lo, the frozen cakes survived the term. Who knows, maybe some desperate PhD student roaming the lonely corridors over the Christmas period will be sustained by finding these goodies… We’ll find out in the new year.

Merry Christmas all!