Zapping sessions spice up lectures

July 2, 2004

A lecturer at Southampton University uses a personal response system to test how much knowledge students have absorbed. Jon Brooke reports.

Although he claims never to have seen an episode of ITV's Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, when Ray d'Inverno, associate dean (education) for the faculty of engineering, science and mathematics at Southampton University, talks about the personal response system (PRS) he uses in lectures, the analogy he most often employs to describe the technology is that it is just like "Ask the Audience".

In common with the audience in the TV programme, students on d'Inverno's courses use a remote control unit to answer multiple-choice questions during a "zapper session", usually in the middle of the lecture. The results are then instantly projected for all to see, most commonly as bar charts.

The majority of students think thezapper sessions are fun, and the professor believes that even at this superficial level they are useful, breaking up the lecture into smaller chunks and encouraging more active participation and higher levels of attendance from students. But they haveother useful properties.

Unlike the TV programme, where the audience answer is the end of the process, d'Inverno has found that in the lecture environment it is just the beginning. He believes the major benefits of PRS come from being able to act on the results of the zapper session straight away, recapping points that have not been understood, and it has given him some surprises. "The zappers have made it clear that there is a group of disengaged students," he says, "and I find that there are key ideas that I have to keep on returning to."

The zapper sessions hit the headlines after the Higher Education Academy's e-learning adviser Lawrence Hamburg raised them at a London conference last month. D'Inverno believes the need for them has become more pressing in recent years because the relationship between lecturers and students is changing, partly due to increased student numbers, but also because today's students come to higher education with different backgrounds and expectations. He says: "Most academics went through a different system from today's students, but the feedback you get from the PRS system helps you to understand the differences."

Another advocate of PRS or, as he prefers to call it, EVS (electronic voting system) is Steve Draper, a senior lecturer in the psychology department at Glasgow University. Like d'Inverno, he believes the instant feedback that comes from PRS allows lecturers to find out straight away whether points have been absorbed.

Many of his colleagues have since taken an interest in PRS, with eight departments at Glasgow starting to use the system over the past two years.

In terms of getting the best out of PRS, Draper says those who put the most in get the most out. "At the simplest level," he says, "just introducing a quiz into the lecture at the end will usually add some value", but he believes the most effective use of PRS is when it involves techniques such as peer-to-peer discussions, in which, for example, students might be given the chance to change their vote following a discussion with a neighbour.

"The extra mental processing is what's important in engaging with the material," he says, "and students really have to think about their answer if they are to justify it to the person next to them, who may have a different idea."

In terms of what students think of PRS, Draper points out that they are very quick to see past the novelty of the system but also quick to recognise that it can be useful. D'Inverno has polled his students and found that 75 per cent would like to see PRS used more widely in lectures.

He also believes it has added to the confidence of students and the spirit of fun in his lectures, to the extent that he can introduce an occasional bit of light-hearted naming and shaming into his zapping sessions: "So, Mr Smith, just why did you think that the answer was B?"

D'Inverno will be claiming next that he has never seen The Weakest Link .

For more information about PRS, go to Steve Draper's Interactive Lectures Interest Group webpage at: http:///

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