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The answer is a click away

SPH professor uses new technology to enhance learning

Wayne Lamorte's students click and learn. Photo by Frank Curran

When Wayne Lamorte teaches biostatistics students the difference between “relative risk” and an “odds ratio,” the School of Public Health professor of epidemiology paces in front of his 24 students, gives real-life examples, shows them graphs and other visuals, and interrupts his lecture with jokes and questions to prompt a class discussion. But when Lamorte really wants to know if the students understand the material, he asks them to click.  

The clicking is part of a new technology known as the Classroom Performance System (CPS), in which Lamorte uses his laptop to project multiple-choice or true-false questions about his lecture topics and his students click in their answers with TV-remote-sized transmitters connected to a wireless receiver. Time’s up after about 30 seconds, and numbers appear representing how many students selected each answer, à la polling the audience in the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? A small check mark appears beside the correct response.

“A lot of this is about trying to get students more actively engaged in learning,” says Lamorte, who is using CPS regularly for the first time in the Summer Institute for Training in Biostatistics, a six-week enrichment program for undergraduates from across the country funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and held simultaneously at BU, North Carolina State University, and the University of Wisconsin.  

“The lecture mode is a very passive form of learning. Attention drifts,” notes Lamorte.  “But the CPS engages everybody,” because the answers are not identified. “You get participation from the more quiet and anonymous students,” he says, who might not participate in a traditional classroom question-and-answer session.  

Lamorte isn’t the only BU professor using CPS, which is sold by a Texas-based company called Einstruction and promoted by BU’s Center for Excellence in Teaching (CET), which has three such systems available for professors to borrow. According to Alan Marscher, CET director and a College of Arts and Sciences professor of astronomy, the use of CPS by BU professors has been slowly spreading over the past five years, mostly in hard-science courses.  

“It’s especially useful in courses where you need students to grasp a concept before you go on to the next concept, where you’re building on what you’ve already taught rather than just hopping from subject to subject,” Marscher explains.

In addition to holding students’ attention, the CPS also gives Lamorte immediate feedback on how well his lessons are sinking in. “If we are all equally wrong on a question, it lets [the professor] know if there’s something he didn’t explain very well,” says J. R. Mortimer (CAS’08), the only BU student in Lamorte’s class.

Misha Rittmann, a rising senior from Grinnell College, seated next to Mortimer, agrees.  “It’s kind of like testing as you go along,” he says, rather than putting all the onus on one or two exams.

“It’s not just about electronics and true-false and multiple-choice,” Lamorte says. “This system can also facilitate an open forum for discussion.” For example, during one recent class, Lamorte used CPS to ask his class if they thought there were significant disparities in health care based on the race or gender of the patient, and if so, if they thought physicians contributed to these disparities. He then talked to the class about a study done on this issue published in the New England Journal of Medicine and showed them a clip from Nightline based on the research. Finally, he posed the same questions again to see if and how responses differed.  

According to Lamorte, while the CPS software and electronics are not completely glitch-free, the system gets high marks for ease of use. Lamorte’s biostatistics students concur. Asked whether it bothered her that answer tallies weren’t represented visually, such as in a bar graph like the audience polls on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Cristin Casazza, a rising junior at Fordham University, responds coolly. “We’re statisticians,” she explains.  “We can handle the numbers.”