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Confusion buttons and other tech promotes classroom participation


Perry Samson, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Michigan and the founder of LectureTools, now known as Echo360, stands in front of one of his lecture classes. Photo courtesy of Perry Samson.

A company has created a program to bridge the gap between students who struggle to stay engaged and ask questions in large lecture halls.

Perry Samson, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Michigan, and a group of students created a company called LectureTools, now known as Echo360, which allows students to voice their questions and confusion in real time during lectures.

“You give students the chance to interact in class, and by God, they do," Samson said. "It’s just all too often we don’t give them the opportunity.”

When asked about engagement in UNC-Chapel Hill lectures, some students are less than optimistic. First-year Eleanor Gratz sees lectures as a difficult, stressful setting for students to express their thoughts. 

"I’ll rehearse (my answer) in my mind, but when I start to speak, I’ll lose the thought, and it’s hard for me to articulate what I’m thinking,” Gratz said.

Echo360 allows students to ask questions via technology in real time during lectures. These questions are then answered by the professor or a teaching assistant. Another popular feature is the confusion button, affectionately called the “WTF button,” which allows professors to see if a particular subject is especially difficult for their students. 

When asking or answering questions with Echo360, Samson encourages elaboration. 

“It’s more than just a clicker or A, B, C," he said. "It’s 'Why did you choose B? Did you get the question right for the wrong reasons? Why did you pick the wrong answer?' It’s a way for me to uncover misconceptions.”

The data collected by Echo360 provides valuable information on participation. Samson said by the end of week three, he can predict who will fail the first exam with 90 percent accuracy. 

Samson utilizes Echo360 in the hopes that, unlike weather, he can actually change the future through early detection.

UNC-CH does not currently use Echo360, but professors employ different strategies to enhance engagement.

UNC-CH first-year Megan Burnette said one of her professors uses the program Poll Everywhere, which is left open during the whole lecture and allows students to write questions.

"It’s handy because it’s a pretty big lecture, so the professor doesn’t have to stop all the time,” Burnette said.

Janice Anderson, a professor in the UNC School of Education, finds the idea of Echo360 very interesting, particularly the confusion button feature. While she has not seen Echo360 used, she sees similar techniques used by UNC-CH professors. 

“We can utilize Twitter as a way to back channel responses and questions within the classroom,” Anderson said.

Beyond a technological standpoint, Anderson sees classroom engagement as a matter of great importance. In her classroom and elsewhere, she finds student engagement is highly dependent on the environment created by professors, technological or otherwise. 

“You hear about active learning a lot on this campus, and the best way to accomplish that is by professors creating exciting and thoughtful classroom environments for their students,” Anderson said.


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