Communication Currents

Are the students even listening? Engagement, learning and the implications of student’s use of student response systems.

April 1, 2013
Instructional Communication

Monday morning, about five hundred students shuffle into the seats of the lecture hall. Talking to students about their weekends, I garner a few responses, but communication drops further in lecture when asking for feedback or examples. Instructor-student communication is vital in the learning process. However, student participation is often problematic and instructors need a viable classroom solution.  

In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Tierney joked that lecture halls remain the first form of distance learning. It is important for instructors to be able to communicate with students in their classrooms regardless of the size. In large lectures, students often feel like passive observers, rather than active learners, as faculty are both physically and affectively removed. Moreover, students can remain unengaged for periods exceeding their attention spans, fostering student anonymity and passivity, conditions that inhibit learning. Students who do not feel involved are less likely to create their own understanding of content and therefore less likely to perform well in testing.  However, due to the economic efficiency of the large lecture format, this model of education is likely to persist.

Central to student-teacher interactions is the process of formative assessment. We as instructors need to measure students’ understanding of course content. Unfortunately in the large lecture classroom, many students are not willing to ask questions or participate. Additionally, I cannot read signs of confusion on all of the faces in the classroom. This lack of participation becomes really problematic when an instructor is trying to assess learning. Instructors need a solution to the lack of participation, especially in large lecture spaces where individual relationships are more limited. I came to this research as an extension of my own teaching, through assessing my solution for participation in large lecture classes—student response systems.

Researchers have begun to explore the use of Student Response Systems (SRS); however, most of the current research is limited in both scope and depth. My research, published in Communication Teacher, looked to expand the research on SRS, checking the viably of clickers in large lectures, comparing students’ perceptions of clickers with perceived learning, and also look at the implications of student and teacher traits on students’ evaluations of clickers.  

The first goal of the study was to examine if SRS offered an effective way of participating in large lecture classes. Students confirmed they would more likely engage via clickers than other means, including hand up and verbal responses. These tools offer a vital way to interact in large lecture sections, confirming the findings of past researchers, and also demonstrate students’ preference for participation based on more anonymous means.

Although a variety of past researchers have argued that the use of SRS impacts both engagement and learning, I sought to see if students’ perceptions of clickers, both in terms of engagement and learning, were associated with affective and cognitive learning.  Students’ perceptions of SRS, in terms of both learning and engagement, predict their reports of affective learning. Students felt they were learning more and engaging more in the classroom, so they also experienced the increasing positive attitudes toward the content and subject matter, which is affective learning. This increase in affective learning echoes past researchers’ conclusions that the use ofclickers offers abundant benefits in students’ enjoyment of the class, which should then increase affective learning—students’  attitudes, beliefs, and values toward the subject matter and learning experience.

Both the clicker learning scale and the clicker engagement scale predicted cognitive learning. However, they only accounted for a minimal percentage of the variability in student learning. It is possible that although clickers do add to students’ learning, this segment is not large enough for students to experience significant learning gains in class. Another possible explanation is that the limitations lie with the measure of cognitive learning, the learning loss scale.

As past researchers have noted that teacher and student traits impact the classroom communication, I also examined the influence of student and teacher traits on perceptions of clickers. Possibly the most interesting results, these findings echo past work in reaffirming that both instructor and student traits impact student participation, even when this participation is mediated through SRS. These results suggest that although SRS offer a viable way to impact students’ learning in the classroom, it is also important to explore the other traits that impact participation, as they account for important differences in students’ evaluations of clickers. Additionally, it is important to note that the strongest relationships in this study were between the evaluations of clickers and student and teacher traits. This reinforces the fact that technology is a tool in the service of pedagogy and not pedagogy in and of itself.

As instructors work to improve interactions in their large lecture classes, instructors should adopt SRS, as they impact students’ willingness to participate and most students reported greater willingness to respond via clickers. As perceptions of clickers have real impact on affective learning, the increased positive attitude toward both content and subject matter, this provides another strong justification for incorporating SRS. Finally, as both instructor and student traits impact perceptions of clickers, specifically teacher immediacy and learner empowerment, it is imperative that instructors focus on all classroom variables regardless of the class size. Instructors should work to increase students’ perceptions of empowerment by adding more sense of choice, where students perceive options within their control, to the classroom. Additionally, regardless of the constraints of the course, it is imperative that instructors still remain immediate by working to reduce the physical and emotional distance in the classroom and engaging students as much as possible.

About the author (s)

Katherine J. Denker

Ball State University

Assistant Professor