Researcher: Bias-busting name-generator keeps kids focused

Random name-generation software–originally designed to make sure teachers call on girls as frequently as boys–appears to have additional benefits. A University of Florida (UF) researcher has discovered the technology also helps students stay focused and engaged in activities that tend to foster academic achievement.

When teachers use a handheld computer that randomly selects which student to call on, even shy or reluctant pupils will be included in class discussions–and students pay more attention as a result, the researcher found.

Paige Allison, a high school math teacher and educational anthropologist student at UF, conducted the research as part of her dissertation. She found that high school students reported they were more engaged in activities that lead to school success when their teachers used the random name-generation technology.

“The interview data from the teachers and students show this technique helped students do those things that we know help them to be successful in school–paying attention, being prepared for class, staying focused, and doing homework,” Allison said. She said she became interested in doing the study after listening to a radio report describing how math teachers call on boys more than girls.

“I came to work and I started paying attention and realized that I, too, was calling on boys more than girls,” Allison said. So, she sought a solution that would eliminate any chance of bias on the part of instructors.

For her research, Allison used an inexpensive handheld computer with Microsoft Office installed on it to generate the names of students randomly, at the touch of a button. A computer programmer wrote a program for her in Excel that would generate the names. “The idea was to give everyone the same opportunity and not to treat anybody differently,” she said.

To test the effectiveness of a random name-generation system, Allison compared participation rates of students in 15 math classes where the device was used with the participation rates of students in 11 math classes where it was not used.

Contrary to expectations, her research found no significant difference in participation rates between the classes, suggesting teachers at the school in question did not show bias in calling on one gender or ethic group more than another, she said.

Still, the random name generator was effective, she said, because students who participated in a series of focus groups afterward said they were more likely to show up for class prepared and to concentrate on what was being said when they knew the computer could produce their name at any time.

“Both students and teachers reported that students paid more attention in class,” she said. “They felt they had to tune in more, because they knew they had a chance of being called on for every question.” After a student’s name comes up on the name generator, it is thrown back into the mix and isn’t eliminated from consideration again.

To make the computerized name-generating system less threatening, students were allowed to take a free “pass” without penalty if they did not wish to respond.

Jerome Dancis, a University of Maryland math professor emeritus, said Allison’s research is important because only a small number of students are willing to raise their hands in class, usually the best students. “Students need to be encouraged to speak up in class, especially high school students because this is a shy age,” he said.

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