Making Sense of Responses to Open-Ended Questions on the Fly

I was looking over my notes from the 2010 Health Professions Educational Research Symposium (HPERS) hosted back in January by Nova Southeastern University, and I was reminded of a couple of interesting points Jim Vanides of Hewlett-Packard made in his closing keynote.  Jim had shared several fascinating ways that educators receiving HP grants have been making use of tablet PCs in the classroom.  I had been familiar with ways in which laptops are often used in the classroom, but I hadn’t heard as much about uses for tablet PCs.

Jim described several examples in which the “digital ink” that tablets provide through their stylus interfaces played key educational roles.  For example, students in an engineering class can draw or design various diagrams on their tablet PCs, then send those to the instructor to be shared and discussed with the whole class.  Sure, students could prepare their diagrams before class for sharing, but sometimes having students work on “deliverables” during class–when the instructor and fellow students are around to provide feedback during the design process–is advantageous.

During the Q&A after Jim’s keynote, I asked him a question I’ve posed here on the blog several times: If students are submitting responses to free-response questions during class, how can an instructor process and use 20 or 30 or more student responses in a timely fashion during class?  With multiple-choice clicker questions, the bar chart is the perfect way to display the results.  How to handle free-response questions?

Jim made two very good points in response to my question:

  1. Since humans process visual information very quickly, having students submit diagrams, drawings, photographs, and other visual responses means instructors can often make sense of dozens of student responses very quickly during class–more quickly than with textual responses.  As a big fan of using visual thinking tools in my work, I really liked this answer!  It also argues for using devices with touch interfaces, like tablets and smart phones, as part of classroom response systems used with open-ended questions.  (Jim also noted that in science, engineering, and mathematics, where people often think with pencils in hand, digital ink can be very useful.)
  2. Instructors practicing the “usual” version of peer instruction, in which students respond to a clicker question on their own, then discuss it with peers, then vote again, can start processing student responses to open-ended questions during the peer discussion phase–while students are engaged in talking with each other.  This gives the instructor a little more time to make sense of student responses and decide how to discuss them with the class.  This is not unlike taking a “backchannel break” during class in which students brainstorm questions in small groups and submit them to the instructor via backchannel.  (I used this approach in a recent workshop on lecturing.)

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m very excited by the educational possibilities of having a class full of students with Web-enabled, app-enabled, touch-screen devices.  I was glad to hear a few new and very useful ideas on this topic from Jim at the HPERS Conference.  I think it’s often helpful to hear from people somewhat out of the usual academic circles I run in for great new ideas!

Image: “40+86 Tablet” by Flickr user bark

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