Learning Catalytics

Jennifer Curtis

Chemistry and Physics Teacher

Oceanside High School

Increased engagement through the power of group learning

I teach chemistry and physics to juniors and seniors at a high school in a rural part of the midcoast area of Maine. We are a one-to-one school—each student is provided with an iPad by the school—which makes it possible for me to use Learning Catalytics with students both in class and at home. I'll ask 5-7 questions in a class period to review the reading or to wrap up a concept discussed in class. Our school was aiming to increase our use of formative assessment techniques, but I found existing clicker solutions to be too teacher-centered and lacked any facility for getting students to interact with each other.

What has made Learning Catalytics so powerful for me is the automatic grouping feature. I'll group students based on their responses and the system will give students instructions on who to talk to. Perhaps surprisingly, students have almost no reservations about communicating openly with their partners. And the discussions are powerful: as I listen to the conversations that are occurring, I start to understand their problem-solving process and to identify their misconceptions. I use the seat map to make eye contact with students to identify who needs more time, which helps with pacing and management. The fact that the instructions to students pop up on their devices avoids classroom management issues, allowing my students to transition seamlessly between activities. Classroom management looks so different in my room now—students are talking and if you didn't know what was going on, you'd think it was chaos!

I wanted to find out what my students were gaining from their discussions, so as part of my master's thesis work I undertook an action research project. I experimented with two different kinds of grouping strategies: option-based grouping, where students were allowed to select their own discussion partners for peer instruction; and evidence-based grouping, where I used Learning Catalytics to automatically assign students to discussion groups. The results were striking: while both groups improved their performance on conceptual questions after discussion, the improvement of students that Learning Catalytics automatically assigned to groups was significantly higher than the improvement of students that simply selected their own discussion partners. Even more encouraging than these quantitative results were the qualitative differences I observed between the groups: students in the evidence-based groups had conversations that focused less on "what did you get?" and more on "how did you get that?", which signaled a higher quality of discussion.

Everyone wants to increase student engagement, but we can't help students until we understand their misconceptions. I was very pleased with the increased engagement that I saw with Learning Catalytics; in a way, there was nowhere for students to "hide" in the classroom. And not only am I engaging students, I'm engaging all of the students, which is key for public education in any form.

The results were striking: while both groups improved their performance on conceptual questions after discussion, the improvement of students that Learning Catalytics automatically assigned to groups was significantly higher than the improvement of students that simply selected their own discussion partners.