Friday, May 20, 2016

Keep Your Students Engaged in a Large Lecture

Good morning, educators. Who among you has worked for hours to create a stimulating and informative lecture, and halfway through delivering said lecture has looked up to see this?

Students get easily bored in a one-way lecture, when nothing is asked of them.

Wouldn't you rather see something more like this?

Students working together to solve problems stay engaged and enjoy better learning outcomes.
Image from

Me, too. As my class sizes get larger and larger, it gets more and more challenging to engage students in their own learning. However, the days of one-way flow of information from a "sage-on-stage" to students are over. Active learning increases student performance, and plain and simple, as educators we should be promoting pedagogy that allows students to thrive. Harvard Physics Professor Eric Mazur founded Learning Catalytics due to his belief that research into the effects of teaching styles on student learning shows that it is "unethical to lecture exclusively."

Lest you get your hackles up, Mazur does not have a problem with lecturing. He has a problem with only lecturing

Enter Learning Catalytics, an in-class response system that will keep your students' attention and help them achieve their learning outcomes.

I had used clickers since their inception. But when Pearson bought Learning Catalytics in 2014, I got on board. As a Pearson textbook author, I attend an annual conference where I was able to see Learning Catalytics in action, and I was blown away.

So what is this Learning Catalytics I speak of? The quick answer is that it is a sophisticated program that allows students to use their own web-enabled devices to answer questions during your lecture.

Learning Catalytics has many question types, not just multiple choice. Image from

Here is a quick summary of why Learning Catalytics is my choice for engaging my students in the large lecture.
1. Because they use their own phones or laptops, students always come to class prepared. (When I used to use clickers, students would constantly forget them, or they would break or run out of batteries.)
2. Learning Catalytics has many question types, not just multiple choice. I can do everything from asking anatomy students to identify a specific bone by clicking it on an image, to collecting data from hundreds of students conducting an in-class experiment. You can choose from thousands of pre-loaded questions from Pearson products, or you can create your own.
3. Learning Catalytics is very economical. It is free with Pearson book packages, or costs $12 per semester or $20 per year.
4. Learning Catalytics makes my life easier by its flexibility. I use a simple toggle bar to choose the point values of modules (e.g., a class meeting) based on participation and performance. Scores can be uploaded directly into a course management system (Moodle, Blackboard, etc.). I can easily review all aspects of performance, by the entire class or by individual student.

Basically, Learning Catalytics allows me to customize how I use active learning in my course, makes it high-tech, and reduces my workload substantially.

Learning Catalytics has a high-tech yet user friendly interface that students enjoy and faculty can easily employ.
Image from

When I discuss Learning Catalytics with other educators, they express reluctance to try it based on three main issues:
1. Concern about wireless capacity. Students need to be online to use Learning Catalytics, and if your campus's wireless capacity is insufficient, then you will have a problem. Talk to your IT Department before adopting the technology. (Hint: I advise students to use their smartphones instead of computers so that they log in using their data in the event the wireless is overloaded. Learning Catalytics uses very little data).
2. Concern that not all students have a web-enabled device. I have taught thousands of students using Learning Catalytics and I have not had a single student who did not own a smartphone, tablet, or laptop. This will vary by student population. If a large proportion of your students do not have devices, then Learning Catalytics is not for you. (Hint: If you are concerned that some of your students lack devices, talk to your university's media center about a tablet rental or borrow program).
3. Concern about allowing (in fact requiring) computer and phone use in the classroom. Many educators are worried that this will cause distraction and negatively impact student learning. This is valid considering study after study showing that note-taking with electronic devices reduces learning and performance compared to handwriting notes. However, I find that a short and frank discussion at the beginning of the class solves this. I tell students that handwritten notes are best, and obviously using social media during lecture will impact their learning and performance. Many students take this to heart and use their devices solely to answer questions. Also, many students successfully take high-tech, high quality notes on their devices. The fact is that we are in the electronic age, and students are using devices more and more, and in my personal opinion, banning electronic note-taking is out-of-date and out-of-touch. Finally, if students are on social media during a significant portion of lecture, then I would take responsibility for this as an instructor. If you keep them engaged, they will not have time to snapchat.

With proper pedagogy, students can stay engaged in lecture even when they use computers. Image:

Here are some best practices for using Learning Catalytics based on my experience. All classes are different, so your style will be, too.
1. Give some points for performance, not just participation. Students try harder and take the exercises more seriously when their points depend on getting the answer correct. On the other hand, scores based entirely on performance can discourage students who get many answers wrong. I use 50-50 participation and performance.
2. Make the point values significant enough that they can affect students' grades. This encourages attendance and effort, and rewards students for trying very hard (which will hopefully improve their learning and exam performance, too). Points in my classes are worth 5-10% of the final course grade.
3. Deploy many questions during a lecture. If you only ask a couple of questions, you might as well be giving a one-way, traditional lecture. This also helps maintain students' attention span. I try to ask at least 10 questions in a 80-minute lecture.
4. Deploy meaningful questions that ask students to apply their knowledge. I once attended a lecture where the instructor taught a concept then asked students to vomit that concept right back using clickers. I sat in the back and watched as comatose students barely roused their index fingers to answer these questions. This is not effective pedagogy. Instead, ask students questions that involve applying their knowledge to new situations. Tell them to think about it, talk to their neighbor, and then answer. In my opinion, this is the key to helping students learn the material and develop as critical thinkers.

One more thing- Learning Catalytics has an awesome Team-Based Learning mode that I use for certain classes. Click here to learn more about this 100% active learning mode of instruction.

How do you get started? Go to the Learning Catalytics website and register for an account. For more information and technical assistance, contact your Pearson representative.

This blog post was stimulated by my participation in a Reinventing the Large Lecture learning community organized by the Cal Poly Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology.