How this professor makes her students a part of the learning experience

How this professor makes her students a part of the learning experience


Patricia teaches Mechanical Engineering, often to large lecture sizes, at Coventry University in the UK . Patricia describes her typical class, “it’s two hours of lecture in a complex, mathematical based subject; it’s a challenge to keep students focused on listening.”

You’ve been there.

The times they are a changin’

Patricia took an extended career break to raise her family. When she returned to the classroom she was shocked by the prevalence of smartphones in classroom; they were certainly not this ubiquitous when she left.

Patricia found this quite frustrating, because she noticed students were addicted to playing with their devices. “I tried to get them to put them away, but then they just have them under the desks; they’re welded to their smart phones. When I came across Top Hat it pinged a light bulb, I thought that instead of fighting this rising tide and prevalence of technology, can I move with it and use it to my advantage? And that’s what Top Hat was saying to me – they have their devices with them, they want to use them, so let the students use them, and let me engage with them through their devices.”

Embracing technology to transform the classroom

“We’re finding new ways to use Top Hat all the time”, Patricia proclaims. “The first way was just the obvious, ask a few questions and that was all I planned. But I’ve realized that Top Hat is so much more powerful than that!”

Instead of Patricia’s students listening to her for 2 hours, she uses Top Hat to ask questions, assess understanding along the way, and create an open discussion forum that allows students to give feedback during the lecture, such as whether she’s going too fast, slow, or whether she should go over a certain topic again.

Patricia empathizes and says, “we’ve all been there – you can always put your hand up and say you don’t quite understand something, but in a big lecture it can be intimidating and if you’re way at the back it’s even harder to feel engaged with the lecturer at the front of the room. So I set up an in-class forum with Top Hat to provide all students the opportunity to give me that feedback, but putting your hand up is still always encouraged.”

Checking understanding along the way

“I use Top Hat to check understanding along the way,” Patricia gave as an example. “If I’m doing a worked problem on the board, I ask the students to engage perhaps by submitting a numerical answer or using one of my favorite questions, Target questions. I can then use it as a springboard into discussion and show them that for example, 50% got it right, and say ‘look, you’re not alone if you didn’t get it right, let’s go over this again until you do’.”

From the results and feedback from the worked problem, Patricia can see if her students understood or whether she needs to go over a certain point again, or she can tell them “well done, you got it” and move on.

Setting her students up for success

Before the lecture begins, Patricia opens a relevant pre-class discussion topic through Top Hat for the students to briefly research and write a description about.

Patricia clarifies, “so at one point during lecture I’ll say ‘we’re going to talk about X, and let’s see what you had to contribute to that’, and I’ll put their answers on the screen.”

She continues, “what I like is that students are bringing information to the lecture that I can then share and disseminate, and I leave the discussion up on Top Hat so that they can go back and look at it afterwards.”

Patricia shares that this accomplishes two things:

1. It warms the students’ brains into her new subject or topic area
2. It gets students thinking about what they’ll engage in during class

Another benefit of this method, according to Patricia, “I really like that I’m able to thank them for contributing valuable information, and it always makes them feel good. I can give them positive feedback; students love to think they’ve taught the lecturer something, and I love to let them think that they have.”

Patricia mostly loves that the pre-discussion turns on her students’ brains to the subject, and allows them to contribute information to the lecture and leave with a feel-good factor.

Attendance has never been easier – especially when it comes to international students

Patricia adds that “I also use it for attendance, which is one of the most useful features.” In the UK there are a lot of attendance requirements with international students, and if institutions can’t convince the agencies that the schools have an effective means of monitoring attendance, then students don’t get visas or can get sent back home. Patricia also mentions that some students are sponsored, and their companies want to be sure the students are attending.

With large class sizes it’s difficult to monitor accurate attendance figures. Patricia says, “I love that I can just release the attendance question randomly through the lecture for a minute, not enough time to text their friend. It’s getting a lot of people excited here.”

She says that even the students appreciate this attendance feature as a major step up from the traditional method: passing a piece of paper around the room that students have to sign. Not to mention, the traditional method is quite disruptive, and then Patricia has 350 names on a list, and the administrator has to input all of this information from each and every class into the system.

Patricia expressed that “administrators love it because it releases them, and it’s quick, instant, and integrate-able with Moodle!”

Now this is brilliant: The Confidence Metric

This is something we’ve never seen before, and that’s because Patricia brilliantly invented it.

Patricia reveals that, “at the beginning of my lecture I lay out my learning outcomes, what I will expect them to learn by the end of the course. At the end of my lecture I put up the learning outcomes again. I ask them a question by putting on the slide ‘I can’, and then ask them to check all of the intended learning outcomes that they feel confident in, so it gives me good feedback about what they have understood at the end of my session. I don’t want to learn at the end of the year when they fail exams that they haven’t learned anything.

Then I ask them to take into account all of the components of the course such as lectures, tutorials, guided self-study etc., and I ask them how confident they are that they’ll achieve mastery in this subject.

I can quickly identify anybody below 60-70, these are the students I am especially concerned with. I can identify them easily and intervene so we can ensure that we are guiding them to success in the course.”

Creating an unprecedented classroom experience

Patricia shared that an associate departmental head sat in on one of Patricia’s classes to observe and see how she was using Top Hat.

At the end of the 2 hour lecture, the department head approached Patricia and congratulated her on an unprecedented classroom experience. Patricia explains that the head fed back, “in a 2 hour lecture you managed to blend lecture with tutorial.”

Patricia explains that “tutorial is interactive learning and engages more personally with the student, and that’s what I was doing in my lecture I was reaching out and engaging at a more personal level with a large class in a large lecture theatre.

And the department head literally pointed to Top Hat and said ‘what you did today wouldn’t have been possible without Top Hat.’

What I was achieving was not just delivering information, but delivering understanding as well.”

And for Engineers?

When asked whether she found Top Hat beneficial for the content of her Mechanical Engineering class specifically, Patricia replied “definitely.”

She continued, “we love the click-on-target questions here; it means that I can get students to identify, for example, areas of high stress in a component by putting a picture up and with the click-on-target questions I can get them to touch where the high stress area is. Then I can show the results through a heat map to see where they all clicked.

All of my colleagues who see the click-on-target questions are so excited!”

The biggest difference

Patricia shares that the biggest value she has seen is the student engagement in a 2 hour lecture. “Giving students opportunities to contribute and giving them activities so they’re not just listening to me for 2 hours. I break it up, interact, and engage with them!”

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