How an SOS button helped this professor surface 770 student questions in one semester

Getting students to participate in class can be an uphill battle.

Perry Samson, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Michigan, is no stranger to a quiet classroom, Lindsay McKenzie writes for Inside Higher Ed.

When Samson first began teaching, he thought getting through a lecture with minimal questions meant a job well done. Later, he realized that a silent classroom doesn't necessarily mean students are following along, McKenzie writes.

In fact, when he surveyed his students, he found that just half of his male students and only a quarter of his female students felt comfortable asking questions in class. Nonnative speakers were even less likely to ask questions during a lecture, he adds.

To help students feel comfortable speaking up in class, Samson and a few of his students developed an app that enabled students to use their phones and laptops to give feedback to instructors in real time. Most importantly, the app had a confusion alert feature, or "WTF button" as Samson refers to it, that allows students to signal when they're confused, McKenzie writes.

Also see: How to reduce the 3 primary risks to learning innovations

Many students are wary about answering and asking questions in class because they don't want to look foolish, writes Study International. On the app, students can see what questions are being asked, but only the lecturer can see who is asking the questions. That extra layer of anonymity helps students feel comfortable posing questions.

Last semester alone, the WTF button helped Samson surface 770 questions that would have previously gone unanswered. "When you give students the opportunity to interact, by God, they do," says Samson.

The tool also helps instructors identify where they’re going too slowly or too fast and adjust their lecture accordingly, McKenzie writes.

Research has found that active learning classrooms like Samson's improve student learning outcomes, says Ann Forman Lippens, a practice manager at EAB's Facilities Forum.

In one meta-analysis of all the studies that had been done about active learning classrooms, you see a decline in the DFW rate (share of students who receive a "D" or "F" grade in a course or withdraw), says Lippens. A separate study found that the test scores are six percentage points higher than a traditional lecture class with the same material.

Moving forward, Samson hopes that the confusion alert feature will give instructors feedback on what exactly about the lecture is confusing, McKenzie writes. Knowing when students are confused is helpful, but understanding what exactly is confusing is critical to improving the lecture, he explains. (McKenzie, Inside Higher Ed, 2/7; Study International Staff, Study International, 2/7).

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