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CRLT helps professors develop device that measures student understanding

Keeping 400 students spread across a large lecture hall engaged for an hour is an undeniable challenge for any teacher. With the help of the University's Center for Research in Learning and Teaching (CRLT), two faculty members developed an idea that meets the challenge and is working in two large Dennison Hall classrooms today.

Tim McKay, associate professor of physics, and Steve Yalisove, associate professor of materials science and engineering, wanted to find a way to teach better and for students to learn better in large lecture classes. They started with an idea that originated with a Harvard physics professor, Eric Mazur, to use an electronic system that tests students several times during a class session to see if they are, in effect, receiving what the lecturer is sending.
Amanda Pitcher, an LSA junior, enters an answer to a multiple-choice question on a device that measures how well students understand information presented in lectures. (Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services)

McKay says they wanted the system to involve participation by the whole class with immediate results, and they wanted it to be private so each individual could answer questions without peer influence. "The students would benefit by a better understanding of the subject matter, through a higher level of participation and engagement with the lecturer throughout the presentation," he says. "They are challenged to think and make decisions in answering questions."

The lecturer, Yalisove says, gets a handle on what the students are thinking and whether they understand the material.

For help in developing the idea and for funding to acquire the equipment that makes it all work, Yalisove and McKay turned to CRLT. In the 1998 winter term, Yalisove and MacKay received separate Phase I Whitaker Grants (McKay joined him for the Phase II proposal in winter 1999), one of five grant programs CRLT administers to support improvement and innovations in learning and teaching.

The Gilbert Whitaker Fund for the Improvement of Teachingnamed in honor of the former provostprovides levels of incentive grants for collaborations of faculty in and across departments and programs. In this case, the departments of Physics and Materials Science and Engineering, CAEN, and the colleges of LSA and Engineering, all provided matching funds to equip large classrooms on Central and North campuses.

CRLT celebrates its 40th anniversary on Friday, Nov. 8 from 2–6 p.m. in the
Michigan Union Ballroom.

2–3:15 p.m.
President Mary Sue Coleman
Provost Paul N. Courant
Senior Vice Provost for
Academic Affairs Lester P. Monts
Keynote Address
Parker Palmer, widely-respected
educator and author

3:15–4 p.m.
CRLT Theater Presentation
“Teaching at U-M: Inspirations
and Challenges”

4–6 p.m.
Teaching Fair
Includes a demonstration by Profs.
Tim McKay and Steve Yalisove

The results were encouraging, says McKay, and, in evaluations, the students liked the system. "Some said having to answer questions helped keep them awake, which is a benefit for all concerned," McKay says. However, the results were anonymous because the devices were not identified with individual students.

The project caught on with other Department of Physics faculty. In 2001, Myron Campbell, professor of physics, was able to secure funds to fully equip two lecture rooms in Dennison Hall. Each student now is assigned a hand-held device for the term, which can be picked up from a cart at the beginning of each class. Campbell says it adds a new dimension to both teaching and learning. "Students are able to participate with the teacher in understanding the material; they're more intellectually engaged," he says. "One way I use the system is to give the students a chance to predict what will happen during a demonstration. It's very effective."

"I like the instant response, and it helps Prof. Campbell to explain what's wrong if we don't understand the material," says Amanda Pitcher, an LSA junior from Dearborn.

Yalisove says that Materials Science and Engineering offers no lecture courses the size of introductory physics, but he will use the system when he next teaches Introduction to Principles of Materials Science and Engineering. "It's exciting to see how the technology is advancing," he says. "Costs to outfit a classroom have plummeted with the use of infrared technology. And Intel recently donated 20 laptops to the College of Engineering, fully loaded with interactive software for use with the smaller classes we tend to have."

McKay and Yalisove say that faculty and students at the University are lucky to have the resources CRLT provides. They say CRLT creates an environment that stimulates innovation through collaboration across the University that helps teachers and students learn from each other.

They note that CRLT has supported their project from the beginning. "They've been there not only with grant funding, but also with staff involvement. They ran focus groups of students to test our ideas, which they helped us think through, and involved other faculty to help refine ideas," Yalisove says.


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