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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Pick and Click: Interactive Assessment Goes to School

Classroom response systems provide instant feedback.
By Jeff Miller

Teaching has long been a magnet for new ideas and new technology. And why shouldn't it be? From flash cards to flash drives, tools that bring learning to life and engage students are welcome additions to any classroom.

Now joining that wish list are classroom response systems (CRS) -- also known as classroom performance systems -- with names like EduGame!, einstruction, Interwrite Learning, Qwizdom, and Smartroom.

The goal is to transform abstract learning into a hands-on experience through the use of remote-control-like clicker devices. The clickers -- which usually come in two varieties, radio frequency or infrared -- allow each student to individually answer questions projected onto an overhead screen. As the lesson proceeds, a receiving device and software installed on a classroom laptop tabulate and aggregate the answers. The teacher can then display the results as graphs for all to see. (For tips on using a CRS, download this document from the Columbia University Medical Center's Center for Education Research and Evaluation.)

David Collier, a science teacher at Terra Linda High School, in San Rafael, California, and a self-acknowledged early adopter, has become a true believer since first using an Einstruction system at his previous high school, in California's Lake County.

"I liked the idea of interactive technology because it gave students a chance to get more involved in their own learning," Collier says. "The software was very easy to install, and the company had online tutorials and answered questions over the phone."

Putting CRS to the Test

"When I started using it to teach earth sciences to my ninth graders, I could tell by their excitement that it was working," Collier notes. "They really liked the embedded visuals that came with the questions. And we could play Jeopardy-like games. Even the kids with attention deficit disorder and other problems really responded well."

Collier also touts an unexpected bonus. "I lucked out because our textbooks came with an exam CD that interfaced with the company's software," he explains. "I could generate a test in five minutes. "

But the best news came at the end of the year, when the school received its state test results. Collier says, "Our school went from last to first in the county in one year."

With so much to like, Collier singles out a particular feature of CRS as his favorite: the instant feedback. "Even when I give the students a printed multiple-choice test, I have them answer with their clickers instead of filling in the typical bubble-dot scan form," he says. "Not only does that save me about $1,000 per year in paper costs, I can also use the CRS's management mode on my computer to follow each student's answers on my screen as they move through the test. That helps me to become a better teacher."

Nicole Miller, a former middle school technology coordinator in the Los Angeles Unified School District, endorses CRS for a similar reason. "A lot of teachers lecture without really knowing if the students are learning," Miller points out. "These systems can help verify and validate on the spot." Plus, she notes, the systems offer some students a welcome anonymity: "The teacher knows your answers, but the other students don't. Privacy allows students to be smart."

Other features, from designing questions and tracking a student's yearly progress to generating reports and instantly grading assignments, have won teachers over across the country. In addition, to sweeten the appeal, most companies now offer prepackaged content that, as Collier can confirm, is tailored to state testing requirements and sometimes to specific textbooks.

The prices of these systems vary, as do patterns of use. Depending on the subject, teachers might use the CRS several times per week or just occasionally for quizzes and tests. In general, teachers should expect to budget between $2,500 and $4,000, which includes the purchase of an LCD projector.

And although Collier's experience has been uniformly positive, some teachers report they needed startup technical support. Be mindful, too, that each company's software is proprietary and incompatible with hardware sold by other CRS businesses.

Not every school principal is jumping on the CRS bandwagon -- at least not yet. But as more and more education majors have become familiar with these systems, which have become standard at colleges and universities across the country, they could spearhead the wider adoption of more sophisticated next-generation click-and-learn products in K-12 classrooms.

The Question Cycle

Indeed, Ian D. Beatty, a researcher at Scientific Reasoning Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, sees these systems as a Trojan horse to get needed technology into the classroom. "They represent guerrilla reform," says Beatty, lead investigator on a five-year project funded by a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. His goal is to evaluate a technique called technology-enhanced formative assessment.

The TEFA project hopes to merge CRS with special training for secondary school math and science instructors in three Massachusetts schools to create an engaging pedagogical style based on what Beatty calls the "question cycle."

Beatty, who has been using and studying CRS products for more than a decade, acknowledges that the language and purpose of the question cycle, which he says is "to form habits of mind and find the limits of knowledge," sound more ivory tower than AP Bio, but he contrasts the current norm -- the quick and shallow recall of facts required of American high school science and math students -- with his larger objective: renouncing the myth of coverage, the idea that what a teacher covers in class matters. "Only what students learn matters," Beatty insists, "and formative assessment is the only way to measure and optimize that."

Even without the research, Collier is convinced that interactivity is the best way to reach today's students. "These kids embrace and engage with technology. It makes sense that teaching should, too." Beatty concurs, saying, "Enhanced communication is a deep idea, and it is here to stay."

Jeff Miller is a science and health writer, a former editor for Hearst magazines, and a longtime communications and creative director for the University of California.

Comments (10)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

John Blaser, Technology Integration Specialist's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was glad to see this topic as a focus for an article and appreciate all the additional references. However, I was disappointed that the article did not include a mention of a system that is one of the best available, if not the best, the SMART Technologies Senteo Student Response System. The system is reasonably priced, easy-to-use, versatile and most importantly, it integrates seamlessly with the SMART interactive whiteboards that our school district has in 90% of our instructional spaces. I find it to be a highly effective tool for both surveys and formative or summative that can be used to direct instruction on the K-12 level. I would like to suggest that you take a second look and find out about the Senteo.

Malik McLean's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In my humble opinion, this new wave of education technology will create a generation that's far more advance than the past generations. At the way things are going, I see young people graduating at the normal age of 14 or fifteen years old from high school.Classroom response system (CRS)is an advance way of schooling.The teachers job becomes more easier, they can keep track of a student better, and it's time consuming.Study show that teachers are mostly in support of this education software. I hope one day as educators we all get on this bandwagon,and help come up with a law that unconditionally supports this technology. Thanks Malik.

Timothy S. McKenna's picture
Timothy S. McKenna
Humanities teacher in Boston, MA

I like this question cycle. The difference between students thinking they get it and actually making the fine distinctions that you can get at with a good question is often large. Knowing that they will be asked to make those distinctions raises the level of attention in the room for the whole lesson.

As a user of these devices for 4 years, I want better tools for designing and organizing questions. We need open systems and standards for creating, sharing, importing and exporting questions. Moodle has or uses an open format that seems decent. I've gotten around the onerous system used by my particular manufacturer (promethean) by moving my questions to a comma delimited format and importing them. I've cut my time for creating a series of questions by about 60% but the importing process is still a drag so I don't use the devices as much as I would like.

What is a little scary about the whole thing is the idea that we could lose control of the process, becoming mere consumers of questions in the continuation of the top-down process protected and secured by proprietary systems that we become clerks for.

Stacey's picture
Stacey
Middle School Social Studies teacher, Bismarck, ND

The classroom response systems are an amazing tool to utilize and incorporate into virtually any subject matter and any age group. The access to the technology is quite another issue in itself, but let's focus on only the benefits for now.
I completely agree with Beatty in that we need to know that students are actually learning what we are teaching. Let's not focus on skimming the surface of every topic known to man. The CRS is a practical and somewhat affordable device for teachers to utilize to formatively assess their students. I think this is such a phenomenal tool to use not just for material that was covered, but for introducing units of study to gauge prior knowledge and differentiate your instruction based on the results.
Most districts are willing to work with teachers on the funding of some of these technologies as long as evidence is available to support increased learning. I believe if teachers are trained properly on ways in which to use the CRS and how to disect the data they collect; evidence should not be difficult to find.

Kirby VanDeWalker's picture

Teacher in Wanamingo, MN

I am about to use clickers for the first time in a couple weeks. I found myself agreeing with your post while reading it. I especially agree that students will be much more willing and not give out a sigh when it is time to take a quiz. The clickers make it more fun for both the teacher and student. It also saves a little time because it grades their quizzes for you. I also like that it gives immediate responses, giving the teacher an idea of what needs to be retaught. However, since I am a beginner with clickers, are there any other ways to use them rather than assessment?

Stacey's picture
Stacey
Middle School Social Studies teacher, Bismarck, ND

I actually just used them this week to determine prior knowledge when starting instruction on a new unit. It helps me get a sense of "where they are" and it gives the students a preview of what to expect for upcoming instruction.

Sonja's picture

I am in the planning stage for an upcoming unit and I am thinking about using clickers for the first time with my English Language Learners. I was wondering if anyone had any advice on what to do (or not do) when starting out with these devices? I think that the students will be excited about using them and I am excited about getting immeiate feedback from the students.

Christa Ranweiler's picture

Thank you for all this great information regarding student response systems. I am eager to try these out in the coming school year! I am wondering if anyone has any advice on how to effectively implement remote clickers into a first grade classroom? What types of obstacles should I anticipate? How often do you/should you plan on using remote clickers as an assessment tool within your lesson plans during a week? Is this a tool you use daily, weekly or only every once in a while? Any tips on how to jump start the use of these neat handheld devices in my first grade classroom would be appreciated!
Christa Ranweiler

Annie Beasley's picture
Annie Beasley
High School Teacher from St. Paul, MN

Classroom Response Systems are such a great tool to utilize in the classroom. I had briefly used them during my student teaching and will now have access to them this upcoming school year. I am especially excited about the progress reports and the ability for instant feedback while maintaining anonymity for students. Thank you for the information you provided and also the resources you included.

Nick's picture
Nick
4th grade elementary teacher from Melrose, Minnesota

Thank you for the insight of the Classroom Response System. I hope to use the CRS program more in the upcoming school year. The links you provided were helpful and I already bookmarked them for later use. I think the idea of having instant feedback is extremely helpful for teachers. I also like that the CRS's provide something unique for the students to use other than the typical format. Thanks again for the research and information.

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