students can press wtf button for help
Students are often reluctant to ask questions in class when they don't understand. Source: futurewalk/Shutterstock.

Pretty much every student cringes when their lecturer asks the class a question and they are met with silence. The class stare at the floor, look busy, do anything to avoid eye contact. And they’re not just scared of answering questions either, they are reluctant to ask them too in fear of being ridiculed.

In order to combat this fear, University of Michigan Professor Perry Samson worked with his students to devise LectureTools, which gave students the opportunity to electronically let lecturers know how they are getting on during the lecture in real-time. The app has since been acquired by lecture-capture technology company Echo360.

In the past, every time Samson left a lecture hall without being flooded with questions, he thought to himself “job well done”.

He told Inside Higher Ed:

“I assumed that I’d nailed it. I’d do a little lecturer victory dance, throw down the chalk and leave the room.”

Now he understands it often means quite the opposite. In fact, after surveying his students, Samson found only about a quarter of his female students and half his male students felt comfortable asking questions in class. Those who didn’t speak English as a first language were even more unlikely to speak out if they were confused.

Echo360 allows Samson to livestream his lectures so all students can view them. It also enables students to answer questions, and query anything they don’t understand, make notes and most vitally, tag a lecture slide with the “confusion alert” button – or as Samson fondly named it, the “WTF button”.

In the last semester alone, Samson received 770 questions from students through the software – questions which otherwise would have likely gone unanswered.

While Samson can see which students are asking what, no one else can. The questions (and subsequent answers) are on view for all students in real-time but give no indication of which student may have asked them.

“It’s opened up a door. When you give students the opportunity to interact, by God, they do,” Samson said.

A teaching assistant picks up the questions as Samson teaches, but when he finishes, he takes the time to look over what was asked and which parts students found confusing.

He uses this to shape their next lesson, working out what needs to be clarified and explaining it in a different way or going over it again.

“It helps me identify when I’m being boring, when I’m going too fast,” Samson said. “It’s changed the way I teach.”

He claimed he can predict, with 90 percent accuracy, which students will fail just by looking at who is interacting.

Samson is hoping the WTF button will be adapted further to enable students to flag up exactly what it was they didn’t understand, not just alert the lecturer to their confusion.

Echo360 senior director of product marketing Richard Caccavale said the improvements to the confusion-alert feature are expected to be in action late 2018.

“Just knowing a student is confused is helpful, but if I had more information, it would help me hone my messaging better,” Samson said. “That’s the next step.”

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