Learning Catalytics

Declan De Paor

Professor, Department of Physics

Old Dominion University

An automated way to incorporate peer instruction

I teach the Introductory Astronomy course to almost 400 General Education students, a challenging bunch of students to engage. I started using devices years ago by asking students to text me directly with questions. I'd check my cell phone often during lecture and responded to incoming questions. Then, I moved to sending questions to students via polling software. In the fall term, I tried Learning Catalytics as an automated way to incorporate peer instruction and ask repeated questions in the classroom. Learning Catalytics gives immediate feedback on whether students understand the lecture, and it's especially useful with visual content.

My students are so busy and engaged answering Learning Catalytics questions during lecture that they don't have time for Facebook.

My favorite visual example is the first question I ever delivered via Learning Catalytics. It's a photo called "Earth Rise" showing the Earth (half in shadow and half in light) as seen by Apollo 8 astronauts orbiting the moon. I asked the students to draw the earth's axis. The majority of students drew the axis perpendicular to the moon's surface. They seemed anchored by the surface of the moon. Seeing their incorrect drawings of the axis helped me quickly assess their misconceptions and address it in lecture. I then delivered the question a second time and responses were much improved.

As for peer learning, I like the ability in Learning Catalytics to group students by different criteria, which I select based on the percentage of students answering the question correctly initially. Some students have to be nudged to engage, which I do by walking around, but basically I just let peer learning take over. Socially, students like knowing the names of their fellow students. I ramped up quickly, delivering 4 questions in my first lecture to sending 12 questions by the end of the term. My students are so busy and engaged answering Learning Catalytics questions during lecture that they don't have time for Facebook.

I recommend that you work closely with your IT department to make sure you have enough "hot spots" in the lecture hall. I had a total of five installed to handle the 370 students enrolled since some students bring multiple devices to class.

(De Paor photo credit: Glen McClure)