Last term, instead of the UBC-standard iClickers, we used Learning Catalytics as our personal response system in the classroom. Joss Ives has detailed his workflow with the system, which involved three different devices (one to run the lecture slides, one to project the student view of Catalytics, and one to run the instructor side of Catalytics). My set-up was much the same, but for one extra detail: I masochistically added a fourth (and sometimes fifth, with my TA) device to the mix.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t dream about spending every minute available after the last class finishes and before my class starts hurriedly setting up all these devices while dodging the previous instructor (and then taking it all down after class). The extra overhead is not an endearing feature of Catalytics. However, I thought that with just one more device, I could make a difference in student engagement.
It all started innocently enough. Without the group tool–which, based on parameters you input, automatically groups students for a revote according to their original vote–Catalytics runs like a slightly clunkier iClicker, and class wasn’t too different than an iClicker class. But then, a few weeks into the term, I tried the grouping tool, and the results were exciting. I saw things I’ve never seen before: students were talking to people other than their friend immediately beside them, sometimes even leaning across aisles to engage in discussions.
This was fantastic. I loved it.
But then, hints of student skepticism were creeping in. After the novelty of the grouping wore off, I saw fewer necks craning, trying to find their assigned partner, and fewer discussions between people who don’t usually talk.
So I wondered if I could help with this. My brilliant idea was this: Embed myself and my lecture TA into the group discussions. Each class, we could bring our extra devices (the fourth and fifth ones), “sit” in a different place in the class (by selecting our seats in Catalytics), answer the questions via Catalytics, then get put in groups so we could facilitate and generate conversations from within.
And this worked. Sort of. A few times. It was definitely successful in surprising students; I saw the shock when they saw my name come up as part of their group. And I did have some very engaging conversations with a few groups I was assigned to. However, on the whole, I don’t think it saved the group tool for the class, and by the end of the term, despite my best and most concise directions, students mostly ignored the grouping directions given by Catalytics.
What this exercise did do, however, was give me a very good look at the student perspective of the tool. The most interesting part of participating in my own polls and being added to groups was that I saw very clearly which grouping parameters resulted in manageable groups. When I was “sitting” in the third row, and Catalytics grouped me with Jackson* in the seventh row and Jocelyn in the second row and five seats over, I could see why students weren’t buying in. With the parameters I was using, there was a large barrier for students to find their groups and discuss. It wasn’t surprising that, after the novelty wore off, the grouping tool appeared largely ineffective.
If I could turn back time, I would have struck my inspiration sooner. I believe that participating in groups is a good way to create interactions with students, to allow you to model what you expect of them, and to generate buy-in for the grouping tool and the peer discussions–but this should start with the start of the semester for maximum effect. More than this, participating in the groups gives useful perspective on what is a bit of a black box.
In closing, I offer some imprecise tips for grouping: Use groups of three and allow students to have the same answer as each other, to make it easier for Catalytics to make groups. It’s better to have students grouped with the same answer than to be isolated and develop a poor attitude towards the grouping tool. In addition, I found it better to set the distance tolerance to be fairly low (maybe 1 seat away), so that students don’t have to yell across the classroom. But most of all, don’t just take my suggestions. From the first day, participate in the groups yourself (or have your TA do it, or both you and your TA) to see first hand how it’s working (and to generate buy-in), and then make adjustments from there.
*Names completely made up.