5.1 Case Study 1: The use of an audience response system

John Sloman, The Economics Network, and Dr. Caroline Elliott, Lancaster University

One way in which lectures can be made more interactive is to use an audience response system (ARS) or ‘clickers’. Universities are increasingly making such systems available in lecture theatres and other classrooms and they are beoming more and more popular with lecturers.

An ARS allows lecturers to ask students questions displayed on the screen. Students then, either individually or in pairs, use a handset to answer the questions. If you are not familiar with it, the system is similar to the ‘ask the audience’ feature in the popular TV show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The handset, or ‘clicker’ as it is often called, is similar to a TV remote control. It has number and/or letter buttons. The students press these in answer to a multiple-choice or numeric question. The handsets communicate with the lectern computer, or the lecturer’s laptop, which has a receiver inserted into a USB port.

The questions can be given verbally, on an overhead projector, or in PowerPoint or Word using a data projector. The responses are then displayed on the screen at the front, either separately or, if PowerPoint is used, integrated into the PowerPoint slide where the question has been displayed.

The system

There are two market-leading systems in UK higher education. The first, and original leader, is InterWrite PRS®, also known simply as a Personal Response System or PRS. It was developed specifically for education. The original version uses an infrared system (as with TV remote controls). This entails having receivers strategically placed around the room, probably wall or ceiling mounted. Up to 40 handsets can be used with each receiver, which must be within 18 metres (60 feet) of each handset. The handsets have 10 alphanumeric buttons and high- and low-confidence buttons.

A more recent version of PRS uses a wireless radio frequency (RF) system. This is the InterWrite PRS RF®. The system allows up to 2000 handsets to be used. These communicate wirelessly with a hub, which can be in the lectern, and which connects via a USB cable to the lectern computer or laptop. Radio frequency systems such as this, unlike infrared, do not require ‘line of site’ to operate. This is useful where there are likely to be obstructions to line of sight, such as the heads of students in front.

The large RF handsets have 10 numeric buttons plus positive, negative and decimal point buttons, A, B, C, D and E buttons, and True and False buttons. The handsets also display the student’s answer. Although the wireless radio version is more expensive in terms of equipment, it can work out cheaper by saving on wiring costs.

The other popular system and now the market leader is TurningPoint®. TurningPoint itself is software designed to run an audience response system, but it comes supplied with ResponseCard® handsets. It can, however, be used with other makes of handset.

As with PRS, TurningPoint with ResponseCard handsets comes in an infrared and radio form. The wireless RF version is better for lecture theatres and has a range of 60 metres. One RF receiver can work with up to 1000 handsets. The ReponseCard handsets are simpler than the large PRS RF version handsets, with only alphanumeric buttons. They are, however, light, thin and robust, and easy for the lecturer to carry around. The latest version has a few more features, including a LCD screen, but is not quite as compact as the simple version.

A recent development for TurningPoint is ResponseWare®. This allows students to use any Internet-enabled device, such as a smartphone, tablet computer or laptop, as an alternative to a handset. Students simply connect to the ResponseWare login, enter the session number, which you have previously set up, and then a voting screen will appear each time you pose a question and then they simply click on their chosen answer. Universities can purchase licences for users. If, for example, they purchase 100 licences, up to 100 students can use the system at any one time. The licences can be used by anyone in the university – they are not restricted to specific students.

Use with PowerPoint

The software supplied with both PRS and TurningPoint is designed to make it easy to construct questions to be used in freestanding mode, or in PowerPoint or other formats. In the case of PowerPoint, both products add a toolbar to PowerPoint. This enables you to incorporate questions into an existing PowerPoint presentation, which can then be used in lectures with the audience response system.

In PRS, you can simply write your questions on a PowerPoint slide, which could be freestanding in its own file or simply as one of the slides in a presentation. The software then allows you to add PRS functionality to the slide. Each student is represented by a cell in a grid at the bottom of each question slide. When students answer the question, their cell changes colour. The larger the class, the more of the slide is taken up by the grid. With groups larger than 40, it might be preferable to put the question on an OHP acetate while allowing the PRS results to be displayed through the computer projector.

With TurningPoint, you can either create a PowerPoint question slide from scratch directly into TurningPoint format, or you convert an existing PowerPoint slide. TurningPoint allows greater use of the PowerPoint slide than does PRS because it records only the numbers of students who have responded at the top of the slide.


You can use either system in anonymous mode, which is probably suitable for most lectures, where the objective of using an ARS is to improve student learning and to provide feedback to the lecturer rather than to assess or track students.

Alternatively you can identify responses by handset. Thus if these are allocated to particular students you can grade these students’ responses. This might be useful for purely formative assessment or merely to track students’ progress or attendance. In certain circumstances, depending on universities’ regulations and where cheating is not possible, the systems could be used for summative assessment too.


The rest of this case study focuses on the learning and feedback benefits of an ARS. First, Caroline Elliott from the University of Huddersfield discusses the use she made of PRS at Lancaster University in a second-year Microeconomics Principles course. It is an extract from an article in the International Review of Economics Education (Elliott, 2003).

Use on a Microeconomics level 2 module at Lancaster University

“Having taught second-year microeconomics for a number of years, I was aware that it was a course that students have historically often found challenging. Further, in a lecture environment students may be unwilling to volunteer information regarding their level of understanding of material covered. Consequently, I primarily used the PRS questions as a means of anonymously testing students’ understanding of material recently covered. If, after observing the results of a question, I was concerned that students had not fully understood the material on which the question was based, I could briefly review the material for them, and also tailor follow-up tutorial content accordingly. I also used multiple-choice questions as a way of introducing a subject, asking students to apply their economic reasoning skills prior to being formally introduced to a new Microeconomics topic. In addition, I used the PRS to gauge how much information students had remembered about a topic from the first year of their economics degree studies. …

I can confirm that the PRS has provided a very useful means of checking students’ understanding of material covered, both quickly in the lectures and also after the lecture. This has meant that I can more accurately determine what material should be revisited in tutorials, as well as in the lectures. Further, I appreciate that it has offered students an easy method of gauging their own understanding, and comparing their performance against that of their peers. While some of these benefits also transpire from the active learning methods reported by Harden et al. (1968)[1] and Dunn (1969)[2], the PRS has additional advantages. Bar-chart summaries of students’ answers are produced and visible to the lecturer and students alike, while responses can also be accurately recalled after the lecture has ended, including the responses of individual students when the PRS is used in the named mode.

I have also found that the PRS has had a very significant effect on students’ performance in lectures, stimulating their interest and concentration, as well as their enjoyment of lectures. It has proved to be an excellent method of encouraging active learning, while offering a means of varying the stimuli received by students in a lecture environment. Furthermore, they have found the PRS very easy to use. …

At the end of the lecture course, I asked the students (anonymously) to complete a questionnaire about the PRS as well as a standard lecturer feedback questionnaire. The PRS questionnaire contained five statements to which students could respond by selecting answers 1 to 5, 1 indicating strong disagreement and 5 denoting strong agreement. Students were also given the opportunity to add any additional comments at the bottom of the questionnaire.

To the statement ‘The PRS is easy is use’, the median response was 5 and the mean response was 4.96. I fully expected this result and believe that it was helpful that I introduced the students to different features of the technology gradually. Hence, I only explained about the high- and low-confidence buttons on the handsets after the students had used the PRS in a couple of lectures. Similarly, I only used the named mode of operation after a number of lectures in which the PRS was used in the anonymous mode.

The statements ‘Using a PRS has increased my enjoyment of lectures’ and ‘Using a PRS has helped my concentration levels in lectures’ both gave rise to encouraging median responses of 4 and mean responses of 4.3. Clearly, not only was I aware that using the PRS improved students’ alertness, but also the vast majority of students recognised that their concentration levels improved when using the technology. Unfortunately, it cannot be deduced to what extent this reflects greater active learning or the changes in stimuli received during lectures. ‘Using a PRS has encouraged me to attend lectures’ produced a median answer of 4 and a mean response of 3.6, with some students pointing out that they would have attended lectures anyway.”

Potential benefits of using an ARS in lectures

There are several potential benefits from using an ARS system, depending on the context in which it is used. The first and probably most obvious one is that a lecture can be easily transformed from a simple transmission process, where essentially the role of students is the passive one of receiving, assimilating and recording information, to a much more active learning experience. By encouraging students to think about and respond to carefully tailored questions, students’ understanding and retention of material, both factual and theoretical, can be greatly increased.

The second benefit is that it makes the lecture more interesting. Not only is the student more engaged with the material, but the lecture becomes more fun. Most people enjoy a quiz. The instant results and immediate sense of achievement from answering a question correctly are great motivators – as is the desire to get the next question correct if you get the wrong answer! Lecturers may be cautious about using ‘fun’ as a motivator, but if students learn and remember more, then it would seem to be well justified.

This leads to the third main benefit. More interesting lectures and lectures where more is learned are likely to improve student attendance.

In addition to these benefits, there are some others, depending on how the system is used.

  • It is a very efficient way of asking questions. The results can be shown immediately in the form of a bar chart.
  • It eliminates the ‘crowd’ effect of getting students to respond to questions by a show of hands. With a show of hands, for example, answer A tends to be selected much less frequently, and a popular answer is likely to encourage the ‘don’t knows’ to raise their hands too. With an ARS, it is virtually impossible to see what other students are selecting, except perhaps for their neighbour.
  • Sharing one handset between two students and allowing them to discuss the answer to each question can improve understanding as they can learn from each other.
  • At the start of the course, it can be used to establish personal characteristics of students, such as age, sex, what degree they are on, whether or not they have A-level Economics or Maths, whether they are straight from school, whether the course is compulsory or optional for them, and so on. Not only does this provide useful information for you as lecturer, but it is also a way of building awareness by students of the community of which they are part.
  • It provides instant feedback to the lecturer on students’ understanding. For example, a large majority with the correct answer would suggest that students have understood and hence you can progress to the next section of the lecture. If, however, the answers are evenly spread between the alternatives is would suggest a general misunderstanding and you might want to go though the material again, perhaps in a slightly different way. If a large number of students have selected a particular wrong answer it can suggest a particular misunderstanding and you might want to address this.
  • The system can be used to give the lecturer instant feedback on the students’ perception of the quality of the lecture. You would need to be brave to do this, but by asking the students what are the best and worst aspects of your lecturing, you can adjust to this immediately rather than waiting for the class satisfaction survey or relying on anecdotal comments. Other questions might be on whether the pace is too fast or too slow, or whether there are too many or too few examples. Also any point of concern raised by individual students outside the lecture can be put to the whole class to test whether this is of general concern.
  • It can be used to check on prior learning from prepared work. This not only provides an incentive for students to prepare for lectures, but again provides useful feedback to the lecturer. Similarly it can be used to check on understanding of material from the previous lecture.
  • It can be used to establish students’ opinions on open-ended topics or policy issues, such as whether income should be redistributed from rich to poor or whether the government should cut taxes and also government expenditure by a corresponding amount. This helps the lecturer to balance discussion of advantages and disadvantages by directly addressing the views of the students.
  • Classroom experiments and games can be easily conducted. These can be an excellent way of illustrating theoretical or conceptual points. You can find many such games on the Classroom Expernomics site.
  • Revision sessions: a large proportion of a lecture could be given over to questions as a way of giving students practice for a forthcoming exam.

If the system is used in the named mode, it can also be used to keep a record of attendance. In addition, students’ answers can be stored and used for identifying students who are in need of support. In certain controlled conditions, it could also be used for summative assessment.

Possible drawbacks of using an ARS

Some lecturers worry about the time taken to distribute handsets and collect them in at the end. Typically, however, if distribution is carefully planned, this should take no more than a couple of minutes and hand-in even less, especially if students deposit their handsets into a box on the way out of the theatre. If students have their own handsets or if ResponseWare for students’ own smartphones/tablets/laptops is used, then there should be no set-up costs at all. Some universities distribute personal handsets free to students at the beginning of the course and only charge for replacements. This too eliminates hand-out/hand-in costs.

Another concern is whether so much material can be ‘covered’ in lectures, given that the questions inevitably take time that could have been used for talking by the lecturer. The obvious answer to this question is that it is better to sacrifice some words for the sake of better learning. What is more, the sacrifice is likely to be small, given that the total amount of time devoted to questioning need be only a few minutes out of the whole lecture.

The use of audience response sytems is also discussed in the handbook chapter on Creative uses of in-class technology.

Alternatives to an ARS system

One alternative, also discussed in the handbook chapter on Creative uses of in-class technology, is to use mobile phone text messaging to answer questions posed by the lecturer, to give feedback or to ask questions of the lecturer. Various software packages allow the lecturer to capture text messages and display them on the screen (see the section on mobile phones in the above handbook chapter). As that section states:

“The use of mobile phones in the classroom has the advantage of opening up discussions in situations where most students would not otherwise participate. Students’ anonymity and the ability to have more time to think about the question encourages larger numbers of students to participate. Students tend to enjoy the interaction and the activity helps to maintain concentration and focus.”

[1]     R. McG. Harden, , Sir E. Wayne and G. Donald,  ‘An audio-visual technique for medical teaching’, Journal of Medical and Biological Illustration, vol. 18, no. 1 (1968), pp. 29–32.

[2]     W. R. Dunn, ‘Programmed learning news, feedback devices in university lectures’, New University, vol. 3, no. 4 (1969), pp. 21–2.