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