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UBC Reports | Vol. 47 | No. 19 | November 29, 2001

Science students click on learning

System fosters interactive learning in the lecture hall

It's as easy as channel surfing and it's changing the way students are learning in the Faculty of Science.

Using infrared communication hardware called Personal Response System (PRS) students in first-year Science classes are participating in a dynamic and interactive learning method used in only a handful of universities in Canada.

"This system is about peer education," says Javed Iqbal, an adjunct professor in the Physics Dept. who uses PRS in his first-year Physics class. "It's very encouraging -- they can definitely teach each other."

The system relies on a handheld remote with numbered buttons, or clicker, that is assigned to each student for the term. There are 300 clickers available.

Students are asked multiple-choice conceptual questions -- sometimes three to four per lecture -- designed to stimulate rational thinking and test understanding of scientific principles.

Students answer each question twice -- once after considering the problem independently and once after debate with their neighbours.

Classroom decibels soar for about two minutes as hundreds of students argue the correctness of their answers.

Using the remote, students click the numbers that correspond to their answer and confidence level. Their answers and identification number are logged directly into a central computer.

Hundreds of numbered squares each corresponding to a clicker light up on the big screen at the front of Hebb Theatre as answers are received.

When they log their answers for a second time, the squares light up again and a bar chart shows the `votes' for each answer, how confident responses were, and which answer is correct.

Marks are automatically logged in the system but understanding the principles is the real goal, says Andre Marziali, assistant professor in the Physics Dept. who led the initiative to adopt the PRS technology.

"Teaching physics requires teaching a skill, not just transferring knowledge," he says. "You don't teach someone basketball by lecturing -- you hand them a ball and put them on the court. PRS allows large classes to practice physics rather than just listen."

Students who may feel intimidated by challenging a professor's idea are usually comfortable in debating the same idea with a fellow student, adds Marziali.

He and Iqbal agree that the system teaches analytical and communication skills and makes their lectures easier, more flexible and fun.

"We're teaching in real time," says Iqbal. "If I see students are not grasping a concept I can modify my lecture on the spot."

Students are enthusiastic, according to department head Tom Tiedje. In course evaluations, students have described PRS transmitters as "awesome" and promoting "actually thinking in class, not copying text."

Currently only Hebb Theatre is outfitted with the system that is also used in Prof. Geoff Herring's first-year Chemistry class. There is discussion of installing PRS in other lecture theatres, says Iqbal.

Other universities using PRS include Harvard, Stanford and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.


Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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