Professor Miller Unlocks Hidden Learning Opportunities with Interactive Texts

Professor Miller Unlocks Hidden Learning Opportunities with Interactive Texts

Professor Carrie Miller

Carrie Miller teaches Physical and General Chemistry at Azusa Pacific University. She has been using Top Hat for in-class engagement for 3 years, and last November she authored two chapters in the recently completed peer-reviewed General Chemistry: A Top Hat Interactive Text.

Having had training in pedagogy prior to running her own courses, Carrie has always focused on student engagement when teaching chemistry to undergraduates. If you’re looking for some fresh tactics to use in your class, check out this article on 3 ways to motivate unengaged college students.

Last term, Carrie ran a pilot test on the newly completed interactive text in her General Chemistry class to see how her students would respond.

A section of 51 students used one chapter from the interactive text and a traditional print textbook for the rest of the course. After the term was over, Carrie surveyed her students on their experience. The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Traditional print textbooks create learning friction

Q: What motivated you to author two chapters in General Chemistry: A Top Hat Interactive Text in the first place?

Professor Miller: The approach I took when writing my chapters was very different from the one the print textbook uses. I found the way my old textbook covered material to be too abstract and unnecessarily difficult for students to grasp, so I took a more intuitive approach.

Q: What were the biggest points of frustration when teaching with a print textbook?

Professor Miller: The biggest frustration I’ve had with using traditional print textbooks is that it’s too expensive so many of them don’t buy it–or they’ll share copies, which is fine until they don’t have a copy on hand and need one.

The book I’ve been using goes for $150-$200 and that price doesn’t even include homework questions–just the print textbook. This makes it difficult to justify continuing to use it in the class.

Another frustration is that students just don’t read the printed textbook. This makes it harder for me to teach because I can’t assume that everyone is prepared in advance. I know they would learn the material better if they read the book first but it’s difficult to enforce that.

Teaching with a print textbook is also challenging when I want to substitute certain material, or teach existing material in a different way. As any professor knows there are multiple methods for teaching the same concept, and every instructor has their preferences.

When I substitute my own material for a chapter in the textbook, what tends to happen is students inevitably get confused about what material they need to learn.

Transform student apathy into student engagement

Q: How easy or hard was it to get started teaching with the Interactive Text?

Professor Miller: I thought it was really easy. At first there were some interface controls that I need help setting up, but Top Hat’s support team guided me through it. They loaded the the text into my sections for me, I logged in and everything was there, ready to go. The nice thing is once you’ve got the interactive text set-up for your course, there isn’t a whole lot you have to do to manage it.

Q: How did teaching with the interactive text help you overcome student apathy?

Professor Miller: Students not reading the print textbook ahead of time was a big problem and that changed enormously.

74% of students said they ‘sometimes’ or ‘rarely’ read the assigned print textbook before class.Graphic01

The survey I conducted at the end of the course shows 74% of my students ‘sometimes’ or ‘rarely’ read assigned print textbook before class.

After switching to the interactive text I had real-time learning data from Top Hat that showed the actual number of students who’d done the readings and answered the questions as they progressed.

So I would log in two days before class and see 50% of students have answered the questions. Then I’d log in morning of class, oh now it’s up to 80% of the students. That was really satisfying to see my students actually preparing for class. And it helped their comprehension too.

Prepared students achieve increased comprehension

90% of students using the interactive text said they spent ‘the same’ or ‘more’ time preparing before class.

Professor Miller: The chapter we covered in the interactive text was on entropy, a notoriously difficult concept. I always have my students write an essay about entropy, and historically this has been very challenging for them because they don’t really understand entropy or the second law.

This year I had the best essays on entropy I’ve ever seen because students understood the material better. Many of the essays even referenced material covered in the interactive text specifically as well as our in-class discussions.

I was so happy and satisfied to see the drastic increase in comprehension of these difficult fundamental principles after having struggled to get students to understand them in the past. And all I had to do was switch to an interactive text!

92% of students using the interactive text said they learned ‘the same’ or ‘more’ compared to the printed textbook.
Graphic3a74% of students said they prefer learning from the interactive text over printed textbook.

Enjoy pedagogical flexibility and control

Q: How did teaching with the interactive text help you overcome pedagogical inflexibility?

Professor Miller: Top Hat gives me the flexibility and control over what I teach and how I want to teach it. So for example, the interactive text chapter we were going to cover in class included a couple of extra sections compared to the print textbook I’d used in previous years.

As it turned out, I didn’t have time to cover those additional sections because they weren’t accounted for in the original syllabus schedule– so I just cut them out! I literally deleted them from the interactive text as soon as I recognized I wouldn’t need them.

Editing THIT3



Students were not confused–they just read everything that was in the interactive text–and they didn’t have to worry about remembering to skip sections or consult with classmates to see if they’d read the correct material.

From their perspective the ‘change’ to required readings was seamless. My students didn’t even know I’d made an adjustment to the material they were required to cover.

A digital teaching toolkit packed with learning resources

Q: What made you look for a new way to teach and deliver course material?

Professor Miller: I’ve always included active learning in my teaching, but the active learning and overall student engagement in my class has increased significantly since adopting Top Hat, that’s the main reason.

I’ve had students tell me that they just actually enjoy the process of being able to submit an answer right in the text, and then get immediate feedback on their comprehension. They really connect with it and, importantly, they use it.

The majority of students who used the interactive text found following along in lecture easier.

Another reason is the print textbook has some problem solutions at the end of the chapter (a complete solution key costs students extra), but students would rarely work through them. And if they did, they often didn’t realize that some of the answers are at the back of the book.

Top Hat’s General Chemistry interactive text comes with supplementary questions and a complete solution key. Students respond well to to the complete solution key because after they’ve worked through a question, they can compare their work, step-by-step, to the correct solution. Student’s ability to do the mechanics of the calculations has been improved by being able to see so many worked out examples.

This helps them understand how to arrive at a solution, not get to a final answer. It also means that I get fewer basic questions in my office hours and more application oriented questions concerned with the bigger picture.


Q: What is your favourite feature in the Top Hat interactive texts?

Professor Miller: My favorite feature is the embedded interactive questions within the text. A lot of my students think that reading is studying. But reading isn’t studying, doing is studying.

Having questions embedded in the text encourages students to read the material and then test their understanding of it on the spot.

Even if they don’t fully understand the material, they have to attempt to engage it and try to figure it out before they come to class. Then when they are in class, they get support and guidance from me to refine and hone their comprehension and complete their understanding.

Interactive texts set students up for learning success

Q: How has using a Top Hat interactive text impacted your pedagogy?

Professor Miller: The biggest way is by creating transparency around how prepared my students are when they come to class. Knowing that students have come to class prepared fundamentally changes my approach to the classroom.

Instead of operating on the assumption that all the material is completely new to them, I’m can come to the classroom and focus on the application of concepts and clarifying confusions, rather than explaining fundamentals that can easily be understood through the readings.

Q: Why do you recommend Top Hat interactive texts to your colleagues?

Professor Miller: The biggest reason I recommend it, is the way the interactive textbook encourages students to read the course material and to engage with it in a way that is completely unlike any print book.

That is the most powerful thing about it because it meets students where they are, on technology they use everyday. And that’s why I am thrilled that APU is adopting Top Hat interactive texts for General Chemistry department-wide.

Unlock around the clock learning

The data collected from Carrie’s pilot test is small but promising. This Fall she will be using the entire General Chemistry interactive text with 150 students and is excited to see the results.

Interactive texts make it as easy as possible for students to get down to learning by eliminating unnecessary logistics. At anytime, professors like Carrie can rephrase, rewrite or remove any aspects and customize material specifically to what they want to teach, in the way they want to teach it.

Based on the findings of this early case study, teaching with interactive texts opens up hidden learning opportunities for students during private study, and inspires deeper and more engaged participation in class.

The effect of teaching students on a medium they are familiar with is a less intimidating, and creates a more courageous learning experience where students can take risks, make mistakes, and learn by doing.

When prepared students arrive to class eager to learn, professors are free to focus on the application of concepts and clarifying confusions, rather than explaining the fundamentals. By Carrie’s student’s early account, learning this way is not only fun but effective too.

Click the button below to find out how you can join  professors like Carrie Miller in leveraging digital pedagogy in your class and unlock around the clock learning.



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