The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

5.1 Case Study 1: The use of a Personal Response System

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.