Dr. Caroline Elliott, Lancaster University
Having lectured on the second year undergraduate Microeconomic Principles course for a number of years, I was aware that many students found this course academically challenging, and often rather 'dry'. Consequently, in the 2000/2001 I introduced a Personal Response System (PRS), purchased from Varitronix. A PRS allows a lecturer to ask multiple-choice questions, to which students respond using a hand-held transmitter. Receivers relay answers to a computer where they are collated, with response summaries shown via an LCD display. The technology offers the lecturer and students opportunities to assess understanding, and the lecturer can re-visit material that has not been sufficiently well understood. In addition, the PRS necessitates active student learning in lectures, and so may sustain student concentration and interest levels.
During any 50-minute lecture I would punctuate my presentation by asking approximately five multiple-choice questions. Typically, I used questions to test students' understanding of material recently covered. However, I also used questions as a way of introducing and stimulating interest in a new topic, and to gauge how much students had remembered about a topic from their previous study. The PRS screen displays the number of the question being asked, the time allotted, and the number of chances each student has to answer. When a question is asked, the clock is 'started' and the time remaining in which to answer is shown. The lecturer can stop the clock at any time. As each handset is used to answer a question another cell on the screen changes colour.
The PRS system can be operated in two modes. In the anonymous mode, when students answer a question a cell on the screen changes colour and the number of the handset responding is displayed. If the handsets are linked to a file with student names, then when screen cells change colour they can also reveal the name of the student answering. The response from each handset can be shown on the screen or kept hidden. If it remains hidden from the audience, double clicking on a cell reveals the answer selected and the time taken to answer. Hence, by double clicking on the first cell to change colour it is possible to congratulate the first student to answer if they answer correctly.
The handsets allow multiple-choice questions with up to 10 answers. However, I only offered students 4 possible answers to limit the time spent on questions. The handsets have high- and low confidence buttons. When bar chart summaries of the results are displayed, the bars comprise different coloured segments indicating the proportions of students answering with different confidence levels.
For each lecture the computer keeps a record of the numbered handsets' responses when the PRS is in the anonymous mode, and records the responses of individual students when in the named mode. The saved information also includes the time taken by each handset to answer every question, the number of attempts made by a handset when each question is asked, and the confidence levels of answers.
The only disadvantage that I have encountered in using the PRS is that less material can be covered in lectures. However, I feel that this is more than compensated by my greater awareness concerning the amount of material students understood. The students rapidly accepted the PRS as a standard teaching tool, and did not seem tempted either to take the handsets away or to 'fiddle' with them during lectures.
John Sloman, The University of the West of England
The level 1 Economic Principles module at the University of the West of England (UWE) is a year long 30-credit module. Students on other 30 credit modules on the programme have 2 lectures per week and 1 seminar (in a group of 20) per week. There are 240 students on the Economic Principles module, and if class contact were to follow the pattern of the other modules, this would mean having 12 weekly seminar groups. Total staff hours would be 14 hours per week.
The material that would be covered in seminars would be a mix of formal theory (such as constructing models and working through graphical and numerical problems) and the consideration of policy issues, cases and other more open-ended questions where there is room for discussion and debate.
The decision was taken several years ago to introduce a third type of class. This is a workshop. Workshops are for the full lecture group in a lecture theatre seating 310. They are taken by two members of staff. Students have 2 lectures per week, 1 workshop per week and 1 seminar per fortnight. Student class contact is thus 3½ hours per week (rather than 3) but staff hours are only 10 hours per week (rather than 14). Workshops are used for technical material or for questions where there is a clear right or wrong answer. Seminars are reserved for discussing policy issues, case studies, debates, small group work, etc.
Students are given 3 lecture hours per week on their timetable but are not told in advance which are lectures and which are workshops. They do know, however, that workshops are based on material covered in lectures.
When students arrive at a workshop, they pick up a problem sheet. This contains a series of questions: graphical, algebraic, numerical problems (set out in sections), multiple-choice questions, making lists, etc. There is room on the sheet for them to write their answers. The students work through one or two questions, discussing them with their neighbours as they do them. The lecturer then goes through the answers from the front. Then the students do another one or two questions, and so on.
The lecture theatre is tiered, and so the students are asked to leave one row free in every three. This allows the lecturers go round giving help to students if they are stuck. Although the workshop involves two (or three) members of staff, there only one needs to be an experienced lecturer. The others can be graduate teaching assistants (GTAs).
Workshops have proved very popular with students and a good medium for learning and applying basic economic concepts. They consistently score high 'satisfaction' ratings in student questionnaires. There are significant economies of scale in such classes and yet virtually nothing is lost by doing the workshop exercises in such classes rather than in groups of 20. In fact the gains can be substantial:
The frequency and total number of workshops that are feasible to run in a department depend on the nature of the module. On 20-credit one-semester modules, the workshops could be run weekly. On 20-credit year long courses, or 10 or 15-credit one-semester modules, the workshops could be organised on a fortnightly basis. Rather than having a whole hour devoted to a workshop, an alternative is to introduce workshop activity into lectures. If lecture hours are increased by 50%, then approximately one-third of each lecture could be devoted to workshop activity, without any reduction in the time for traditional lecturing. The mix of lecturing and workshop activity in each lecture hour could make for a very active learning experience for students.