My New Year’s resolution is to use more tech in the classroom

Interactive presentation software can give lecturers greater insight into how their students are engaging with content, says Julianne Law 

January 19, 2019
Young people gathered together using smartphones
Source: iStock

I have used many teaching techniques in my 20 years as a lecturer in higher education. I started with the standard “chalk and talk” and progressed to using more sophisticated technology. The goal of all these techniques was to engage the students in their own learning. A few months ago I attended a school away day and was interested to see word clouds being used. It occurred to me that this software might also be useful in my large undergraduate modules, so I decided to try it. 

Using the interactive presentation software mentimeter.com, I was able to set up a word cloud question for the students. I was giving a lecture on how to write an essay and I wanted to compare how the students felt about this topic before the lecture and after it. 

So, the first thing I asked them to do was, “Give me three words that describe how you feel about writing this essay”. I displayed the prompt on the screen and I instructed the students to use their phones, tablets or laptops to access mentimeter.com. 

They were told to use a six-digit access code that I provided and to type in their three words. As they started to type their words into the system, they appeared on the screen in front of the group. There were about 50 students in the room and I could see that about 38 of the students were participating in the exercise. 

Words appearing more frequently than others became larger and more dominant on the screen. I commented on some of the words as they appeared and mentioned that we would be talking about some of those concepts during the lecture. Some of the words showed me that several students felt confident about doing the assignment whereas others did not. After doing this exercise for about five minutes, I removed the slide from the screen and started the lecture. 

Health lecture word cloud 2

After the lecture, I asked the students to again give me three words that told me how they were feeling about completing the assignment. 

Health lecture word cloud

I was happy to see that, after listening to the lecture, several of the students felt less anxious about completing the assignment. 

So, what are the advantages of using  word clouds in my lectures? First, they allow me to have instant feedback on what the students understand about the topic before I give the lecture. Second, at the end of the lecture, it can tell me how much of the content was understood by the students. Third, it can help the group see that some students may be struggling with the same issues that they are struggling with. And because the answers are anonymous, a student might be more willing to share their fears rather than raising their hand to ask a question in a large group of students. 

There are, however, disadvantages to this exercise. First, students need a phone or other device with an internet connection in order to participate and that may not be possible for some students on a low income. Second, it may not be possible to use in a lecture room where there is not a strong Wi-Fi connection. Finally, students may be influenced by other students’ responses and change their initial answers making the world cloud not entirely accurate. Some students may also enter words that are inappropriate, or words that do not relate to the lecture material. 

I have successfully used this technology on several occasions. There are endless different ways that this and other interactive presentation software can be used in the lecture room. It was important that the students enjoyed using the software and that they felt that I was listening to their concerns. Even more important was the fact that the students were actively engaged in the lecture process, which was the main purpose of using this technology in the first place.  

Julianne Law is a lecturer in health sciences at Bangor University.

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