Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School, a member of Uncommon Schools, is the only school in New York City where every student in grades 5-8 passes the state exams. In grades 6-8, 75 percent of the students pass with advanced scores.
Mathematics teacher Eric Green attributes this success to high student motivation and engagement. “The traditional procedural approach to math education doesn’t get the students thinking and therefore doesn’t lead to a full conceptual understanding,” said Green.
“At Uncommon Schools we’re much more focused on the conceptual component than just showing students how to do it. Supported with direct instruction, our students explore problems and think critically.”
The research: Student response systems
This approach to instruction is most effective with the introduction of new classroom tools. In their effort to increase student motivation, engagement, and participation, Williamsburg and other similar schools have adopted student response systems (SRS). A growing body of research points to the effectiveness of this technology as it capitalizes on the technological ability and interest of students today while providing an important tool for informed instruction. SRS not only increases student engagement, but also offers more efficiency for classroom administration.
Extensive research suggests that these systems promote learning gains when coupled with appropriate pedagogical methodologies. Understandably, technology alone cannot bring about improvements unless it is used in conjunction with exceptional teaching strategies. But, when used skillfully, the potential is extraordinary. For example, a compilation of many recent independent research studies demonstrates that classrooms using SRS were found to deliver the following benefits:
• Greater student engagement
• Increased understanding of complex subject matter
• Increased student interest and enjoyment
• Heightened discussion and interactivity
• Increased student awareness and increased levels of individual comprehension
• Increased teacher insight into student difficulties
While SRS technology has been widely used in higher education for the past 20 years, there is growing interest in these systems by K-12 professionals. After all, this new student generation is entering the elementary school years with the skills and interest to use technology. Research conducted specifically on the K-12 population offers some promising findings.
In a 2009 study (Kay and Knaak, 2009) of high school students, the following statements expressed the students’ impression towards using SRS, often referred to colloquially as “clickers”:
• Using clickers was a good way to test my knowledge (74 percent)
• I was more engaged in the lesson when clickers were used (70 percent)
• I was more motivated when clickers were used (63 percent)
• I participated more than normally when clickers were used (62 percent)
• I would prefer to use clickers (62 percent)
In the same study, teachers noted that SRS technology helped them know immediately when the students were grasping a concept, or not. If not, they were able to better adapt their teaching to meet the student’s instructional needs.
An inside look: SRS in the classroom
Williamsburg Collegiate relies on student response technology, which Green believes is largely responsible for strong engagement. Students use “student response pads” to wirelessly transmit answers for impromptu questions or quizzes directly to the teacher’s computer. Teachers get a compilation of responses within seconds and capture real-time assessment data to gauge student comprehension while teaching.
“Teachers can immediately see if students are making errors on a certain type of problem,” said Green. “The real-time data coming back on tests and quizzes helps teachers modify their instruction real-time to meet the needs of their students.”
One glance at aggregated responses can immediately convey whether the class in agreement (a peak), generally undecided (a random spread), or highly polarized (two distinct peaks).
“It’s helped tremendously with scores and motivation. Today’s students are very technologically advanced, intuitively understand how to use the clicker, and are excited to use it,” Green said. “They feel supported in their learning. Particularly, struggling students know that this will get the teacher over to them right away and they’re not in a frustrated holding pattern.”
The technology also automates and streamlines time-consuming administrative tasks like taking attendance, grading, and recording the results. The fact is, teachers have limited time to assess each student’s individual performance and technology helps solve that problem.