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Using Technology to Improve Engagement in Large Classes

Dr. Alisa Krishtal shares her strategies for driving engagement in a 100-student chemistry class by adopting easy-to-use, high-tech tools.

Dr. Alisa Krishtal shares her strategies for driving engagement in a 100-student chemistry class by adopting easy-to-use, high-tech tools.

Teaching in general can be overwhelming, and Alisa Krishtal, PhD, is not afraid to admit it. When the lecturer of General Chemistry at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark was first faced with 100 pairs of eyes—some glazed over, some closed—she knew she needed to break from traditional teaching methods. “If you just lecture, they fall asleep fast,” she says.

Krishtal was already opposed to what she calls “old school” teaching: Many of her own professors considered “active teaching” to be hand-holding, she explains. “Their thought was, ‘If you’re good, you’re going to make it.’” As a result, she says, many of her classmates failed out of school. “How many of them could have made it if there was a different teaching approach?” she asks. “It’s a shame.”

So when Krishtal took her spot at the lectern, she was determined never to allow her own students to succumb to the same fate—or even to a long nap. However, without any teaching assistants, she was unsure how she would be able to command the attention of so many people at once.

Then, during her first year of teaching, Krishtal discovered the high-tech tool iClicker, which enables her to interact with all of her students in class in real time, using a special remote or an app downloaded to their smartphone. The technology creates a live feedback loop by allowing instructors to show multiple-choice questions via a PowerPoint presentation; the students can answer quickly and anonymously with a single click on their remotes or phones. Their votes are registered through the Internet, providing Krishtal with an instant assessment of what the class understands versus the subject matter that needs more attention. And it keeps students alert as they wait for the next question to pop up.

As a result, Krishtal has been able to adopt a modified flipped classroom approach—one that she finds works well in her circumstances. Though a fully flipped classroom would require that students learn new material on their own before class (so they can engage in active learning during class time), Krishtal quickly realized that her students were not doing the required readings in advance.

Her methodology today involves a combination of simplified pre-class readings and the interspersing of lecture with iClicker questions. Though it took her some time to get up to speed, she has become a self-proclaimed “power user” of the technology—and she is happy to share her methods below.

Skip training, but offer a buffer period

Krishtal’s General Chemistry course brings active learning into the classroom without requiring students to absorb every piece of relevant information before they arrive. She uses frequent, challenging questions—both in class with iClickers and occasional worksheets, and outside of class with online homework—to ensure that students pay attention. This approach fits the latest research on effective learning through frequent, low-stakes recall.

Here are some tips on how she does it:

Prepare students

Today, most students have used or at least heard of iClicker, so Krishtal does not spend time training or onboarding students. Still, she gives them a buffer period of a few weeks before she starts to grade them on participation and correct answers. (Students get one point for participation and an additional point for a right answer.) “It sometimes takes students a while to buy an iClicker [or download the app],” she says. “But after that, they just sync into it.”

Create slides

As with any flipped classroom, Krishtal releases materials—in her case, PowerPoint slides—prior to class. (“They’re also advised to look at the [text]book, but [usually] they don’t,” she says.) Then, in class, she walks them through the information on the slides, one at a time. Since this would quickly become about as exciting as a straight lecture, Krishtal recommends a 50-50 split between “reading” and “doing” in any slideshow.

“At least half of my slides are devoted to examples, exercises, and iClicker questions, so students are actively involved in the material during the lecture, even if it’s held in a large lecture hall,” she says.

Krishtal keeps her slides short, with minimal text and explanation, partly because she prefers to reserve most classroom time for practice rather than a long discussion of slides. “I also believe a good slide should show the information visually, without actually requiring reading,” she adds. If they are busy reading, she explains, they cannot simultaneously pay attention to her verbal explanations.

Meet tech challenges

Generally, technological challenges are minimal, thanks to both NJIT’s powerful WiFi and a post-Millennial mentality. “[Students] won’t survive without Internet for five minutes. They breathe Internet,” she says.

However, Krishtal says there are best ways to guide students to deal most effectively with iClicker questions. “I always have to give them a warning that I am about to close a question. On the projected screen, there is an iClicker button that shows the timer, and also number of received votes. I monitor the number of votes and when I think 90% of the people have voted, I give them a warning that I will close the question soon—10 seconds, 15 seconds, or 30 seconds, depending on the difficulty of the question. Since they get participation points, I tell them, ‘If you’re not sure, vote something, to get the one point.’”

Prep weekly

Krishtal revises questions every week. “I’m forever searching for the perfect iClicker question, and it’s an iterative process,” she explains.

She is also careful to estimate how many minutes of class time it will take her to read and discuss each slide (and any accompanying activity). At this point, she says she has it down to a science. “I really count it out, but there’s more of a gut feeling to it now,” she says, noting that this type of teaching requires precision and structure to get through all the material.

“You have to make choices, otherwise you won’t have time to cover it all,” she says. “You have to consider which questions you’re going to give them, and what’s worthwhile to spend six minutes on.”

Design the questions

The iClicker questions and their accompanying slides are key to her method, says Krishtal. Over the years, she has gotten particularly good at anticipating errors students will make.

“You want a question that teaches them something, and you put in all the minefields—everything they’re going to trip on—and those are going to be in the wrong answers,” she says.

These minefields are what get her students to communicate with her, and what ultimately makes this method so successful—because it is iterative. “It’s not just me giving them questions, and them giving me answers. It’s me listening to them [and finding out] why they get things wrong, and encouraging them to ask questions,” she says.

Use incorrect answers

The flipped classroom not only engages students but also creates an active learning experience, where they can openly defend their answers, ask questions they had not considered while at home, and then talk through the solution together.

“If they all get it wrong, we look at the question and try to narrow things down purely based on what would be an illogical or unreasonable answer,” she says. “If someone says B is the correct answer, but it’s wrong, I’ll ask them to explain why they think it’s correct and then ask someone else from the classroom to counter it.”

Krishtal takes notes on students’ responses to her questions, then uses the insights to design course materials for the next cohort. “It’s students who design my materials,” she says. “They have helped me make the course better.”

Result: Student engagement

Students love Krishtal’s method of interactive teaching with iClickers. “They call it the best feature of the course, because it keeps them awake and on their toes,” she says.

Krishtal herself loves it because it meets all of her goals: Not only does it enable her to engage and communicate with her students but it encourages them to communicate with each other. “In large classrooms, one out of 100 students will raise a hand, but if they can talk to each other, then everyone is talking,” she says. “They get into it and try to convince each other [of the right answer].”

When the correct answer is finally revealed, adds Krishtal, it is a gratifying moment for each individual, but it is also a deeper, shared learning experience for the entire class.

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