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Although the benefits of active learning in higher education are now widely accepted, many students, having been spoon-fed throughout their secondary education, seem reluctant to adapt to the changed emphasis when they arrive at university. Attempts to promote more active involvement through questioning and in-class discussions often achieve only limited success because of both the limited number of active participants that can be accommodated at any time and also because many students are reluctant to contribute, unwilling to take the risk of appearing ‘stupid’ in front of their peers. However, the introduction of an audience response system (ARS) can offer new hope of promoting more active learning, in a relatively risk-free way, within a traditional lecture format. Modern ARSs make use of technology that today’s students are comfortable with and find easy and enjoyable to work with. The confidential nature of answers creates a friendly stress free environment that encourages student participation. The ARS enables all students to become actively involved rather than allowing the more vocal students to dominate proceedings and it allows students to input their answers without fear of embarrassment.
The use of ARS not only enables and encourages a more active approach to learning but facilitates rapid feedback. This is important for the student who is able to gauge progress both absolutely and in comparison with the peer group, and it is also important for the lecturer because if a significant number of students fail to identify the correct answer there is clearly a need for remedial action to help overcome the learning deficiency identified. When an initial poll for answers reveals clear differences of opinion within a class it can be productive to encourage students to enter into peer group discussions before re-polling and revealing the correct answer. Conflict leading to consensus can be a very powerful learning process.
While there is little doubt that Audience Response Systems can offer advantages in both motivating students and in increasing their active participation in classes there are a number of disadvantages that should be appreciated before opting to use them. Firstly there are significant initial and recurring cost implications associated with their use. Secondly there are time implications. Time is required for students to think about their answers and time is required for polling and debriefing. In general the amount of material covered tends to be less than would be the case for a traditional lecture, and it is therefore important to balance this decreased information transfer with the improved understanding that may be generated. Finally, although questioning is likely to stimulate improved learning, open ended questions demanding recall, appear to be more effective than multiple choice questions where the emphasis is on the lower skill of recognition, particularly when subsequent assessment and examinations are likely to test recall rather than recognition.
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