April 29, 2004

Students benefit from interactive classroom system

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- An interactive system in use this semester in a freshman chemistry class at Southern Illinois University Carbondale is paying dividends for students.

Students benefit from immediate feedback as well as further review and instruction on subject matter, said Tyrrell.James Tyrrell, a chemistry professor and associate dean of the College of Science, began using the Classroom Performance System this semester. During a lecture, students using remote keypads enter their answers to multiple-choice questions. Tyrrell and the students then instantly see their answers and the correct answer and can further discuss the problem, if needed.

"This gives them a kind of instantaneous feedback if they don't understand the material -- as opposed to the typical situation, where I would lecture for a couple of chapters and then give an examination, only at that point, perhaps, to find out that the students don't understand a particular topic," said Tyrrell, who has taught at SIUC for 36 years.

"Here, I'm catching it almost at the point it is being done," he said.

Each lecture, then, comprises both instruction and evaluation, he said.

Another benefit is that class attendance remained above 90 percent this semester, which Tyrrell said is unusual for a freshman chemistry class. The class, CHEM 200, meets on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and is the first semester of regular chemistry courses for engineering and science majors.

Of the 114 students enrolled this semester, only two dropped the class by the official drop date, he said. The continuous evaluation that is done through attendance and in-class quizzes "encourages them to attend on a regular basis instead of just showing up for an exam, as is not uncommon," Tyrrell said.

The higher level of accountability for the students means they are putting in more effort, he said. They must attend regularly, come prepared to class and pay attention.

At the beginning of class, students respond to a question designed to see if they understand the most recent lessons and are keeping up with the material. Two questions asked near the end of class deal with material covered in class that day and gauge if the students are paying attention.

"The whole idea behind this is to make the students feel that they must be more completely involved in the learning process themselves," Tyrrell said. "They can't just put off looking at the material until the night before the exam and do a quick study in the hope that that will enable them to get the material."

Students can then see whether they understand the material, and also how they are measuring up to the rest of the class.

With daily quizzes, students earn points toward their final grade in small doses and have an opportunity to gain or lose points. Each student's answers are then downloaded into a computer where Tyrrell can track their progress and see which students might be having problems.

Tyrrell candidly admits that in an ideal environment, students come to class prepared and listen actively. This system, he said, particularly in a lecture hall setting, places much more accountability on students to put forth the effort in class.

"The bottom line is to see improved performance in class," he said.

Finding new and innovative ways to teach students is among the goals of Southern@150, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.