Star Turn

November 13, 1998

Olga Wojtas watches Strathclyde's quizmasterin action with a group of mechanical engineers.

There is something of the quiz show about Jim Boyle's lectures. Each student holds a gadget resembling a television remote control. When he asks them a question they buzz him with the answer.

Professor Boyle, professor of mechanical engineering, gets an instant snapshot of his first-year students' grasp of his subject and their progress. He tailors his two-hour session to their response, thanks to the Pounds 115,000 interactive media classroom Strathclyde University has just installed.

"If the whole class understands a concept, there's no point in discussing it further. If there are problems, you need to explain more," Professor Boyle says.

Each session includes an introduction to a concept followed by questions, quizzes, problem-solving and interactive demonstrations. Students work singly, in pairs or in groups of four.

So there is no snoozing at the back of the lecture theatre when Professor Boyle gets into the swing of lecturing about kinetic energy with video back-up or experiments. Soon the questions are coming fast about how cylinders roll down inclines or how roller-coasters are designed.

Students get three minutes to answer. A screen at the front shows boxes being filled in as each student keys in an answer. Then barcharts appear showing how many students have opted for each answer, with different colours charting their degree of confidence.

Every so often Professor Boyle asks special "quiz questions", which will count towards the students' final assessment.

The class of more than 90 students is intrigued. Cameron Laing likes getting an immediate response to how well he is doing.

"It's helpful, because if you've not got the right answer, you can go away and solve any problems before they start. And it's a break from regular lectures as well, so perhaps you concentrate more."

Lucy Schiavetta says: "It makes it interesting that you're not just sitting listening. You have to keep on your toes. I quite enjoy it because it's so different."

Cyril Gormand finds it is strange that "the teacher can see if the majority have understood or not. That's impossible normally".

Snorri Rasmussen says that the small group learning has helped the entrants get to know one another. The mechanical engineering department developed the project through a scheme called NATALIE, new approaches to teaching and learning in engineering. But Professor Boyle wants to sell the idea universitywide.

"There's a lot of interactive learning going on at Strathclyde already, but this is a tool that means complicated concepts in science and engineering can be worked through simultaneously by the whole class, and enables us to be sure everyone is keeping up," he says.

"If students are struggling, we'll know and be able to offer additional help, avoiding the tragedy of them slipping through unnoticed until it's too late."

Mechanical engineering lecturer Bill King who has also been pioneering the system, says: "You have to modify your teaching because it's not a question of clutching a set of lecture notes. You're actively engaging with the students."

Professor Boyle agrees: "Gone are the days when a lecturer can stride into a room, deliver a 50-minute lecture and then walk out again. We're catering for more and more students from a variety of backgrounds. It means we have to be sure a whole class is progressing every step of the way."

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