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Second Newsletter ad

By Steve Draper,   Department of Psychology,   University of Glasgow.

[A version of this appeared in the University of Glasgow Newsletter 247, 30 May 2003, p.11]

Make your lectures more interactive with voting handsets

It's time to sketch plans for changes to our teaching for next session, and the marking we are currently doing can provide some horrid reminders of how we would wish our effectiveness to improve. One possibility for adding a small but worthwhile improvement to lectures or large group tutorials is to use the PRS handset equipment, and we are putting on workshops this term to introduce interested staff to the possibilities.

Functionally similar to the "ask the audience" feature in the TV show "Who wants to be a millionaire?", it allows a lecturer to put up any multiple choice question (with up to 10 alternative responses) and have answers from the whole audience collected, and the aggregated answers displayed in a barchart. The anonymity provided is enough to get a whole, previously reticent, class participating. Simple content questions that allow each student to gauge their own degree of understanding have proved reliably valued by students, but another of the many uses is to pose a question that draws divided responses and then instead of stating the correct answer, have the whole audience discuss with their neighbours the reasons for and against each answer. Having each student generate their own reasons is much better for promoting learning (especially deep learning) than everyone waiting around for one person (whether student or lecturer) to do it. Just as important is the information these techniques give to lecturers about how well the class understands the topic at any given moment, allowing them to adapt to the needs of the moment. While we have collected ways such as these to use the equipment, and this may be of some utility in prompting further uses, most of the success to date has really been based on individual lecturers already having identified specific problems in their own teaching contexts and imagining how to use the equipment to address them.

The equipment (which is mobile, and enough for our two biggest lecture theatres simultaneously) and some technical support is freely available within the university. We have been able to reduce the added technical work for lecturers to a very low level, leaving them free to design the questions and the role these will play in the lecture. The following people (many originally recruited through an earlier Newsletter article) have used it since October 2001:

Lecturers who have used the handsets Oct 2001 - March 2003
Only one use per person shown
Department Level Target class size Lectures x repeats
Diane Addie Veterinary Medicine 4 100 1
Marjorie Allison Medicine 3 250 3
Barbara Cogdell
Rob Smith
IBLS 2 300 1 x 2
Quintin Cutts Computing Science 1 450 20 x 2
Steve Draper Psychology 4 40 3
Jason Leitch Dental School CPD 18 1
Sarah MacKay IBLS 2 150 1
Colin Martin Medicine 4 250 1
Margaret Martin Psychology 1 500 3 x 2
Paddy O'Donnell Psychology 3 100 5
Susan Stuart Philosophy 2 100 9
Ernst Wit
John McColl
Nicole Augustin
Nial Friel
Statistics 1/ 2 200 9

Evaluation data has been collected, and in almost all cases both staff and students rated it as worthwhile i.e. as having benefits that outweigh any disadvantages. Papers on these evaluations, suggestions for how to use the equipment, pedagogical rationales, technical details, our contact details, and more are available on the website at:

The opening phase of exploring this technology here has shown it can be a success in a wide range of subjects, at all levels of teaching, in a wide range of audience sizes, in either one-off or regular use with a given group, and with lecturers with both zero and great interest in personal mastery of technology. Consequently we are now confident that it is a good time to roll out its adoption further, and that we have collectively the experience to support this. This university appears currently to have the widest (though not the longest standing) overall use of this technology in the UK, and we hope to extend this. Current enquiries suggest we may soon have further users in Astronomy, Physics, Engineering, and French. (We would personally be especially interested in working with staff from the Arts faculty, to extend our repertoire there of one success in Philosophy, and one serious inquiry from French language.)

We are consequently putting on some workshops to introduce more staff to the possibilities. One on 20th May already has 19 people signed up for it at the time of writing; another is arranged for 27th May to suit some who couldn't make the first date; and we are planning another perhaps on 18th June for those reading this article. Contact Quintin ( if you are interested, and you may also be able to influence the date. Definite up to date announcements will be on the website, and also emailed to any who announce an interest. Besides disseminating this successful technique to a wider set of staff, we are interested in estimating demand for the equipment in the next session so as to plan resourcing: so please let us know if you hope to use it, whether or not you also come to a workshop.

Finally, let us return to a vital point. This article has necessarily headlined the technology, and personally we are interested in trying to generalise across uses. However in fact success depends on individual lecturers and their very different circumstances: first in identifying an issue worth improving, and secondly in imagining how to co-opt the technology to address their particular situation. We may supply the gadgets, but you write the questions; we enjoy discussing your ideas and hope you may find that useful, but it is of course you who will design, present, and take the responsibility for your enhanced lectures.

Steve Draper and Quintin Cutts

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