McCormick instructors experiment with Learning Catalytics

Emma DeCosta, lecturer in the McCormick office of undergraduate engineering, wanted to re-energize Materials Science 201, where the twice-a-week lectures were long and dense with highly technical course material. Were the students getting it? Were they paying attention?

“What the students were thinking was completely opaque to me,” DeCosta says.

DeCosta and assistant professor Ramille Shah—with whom she was co-teaching Materials Science 301—secured a Digital Learning Fellows grant from the Provost’s office to pilot the cloud-based student response software Learning Catalytics as an alternative to physical clickers that would allow more interactions throughout class and elicit more just-in-time feedback from their students.

In Spring Quarter 2016, DeCosta focused on building up a question bank in Learning Catalytics for each lecture so student learning could be assessed in real-time every class session. This also allowed DeCosta and her colleagues to begin identifying and unpacking students’ misconceptions.

Fine-tuning the questions and how to use them continued to be a focus with her Materials Science 201 co-instructor Jonathan Emery during the 2016-17 school year when they realized how powerful Learning Catalytics was in a class of 100 or more students. With the combination of multiple choice, open-ended, and visual questions the system supports, DeCosta and Emery iterated through a few cycles of the class and discovered that while it had once been challenging to predict where their students would stumble, they could now identify and address the things students found discouraging or confusing and address them before they moved on to new material.

Encouraged by the success of this BYOD (or bring-your-own-device) system for her classes, but aware that the kinds of challenges and approaches would differ between disciplines, DeCosta convened a panel for TEACHx in May 2017 called “Use of Personal Response Systems in Various Academic Fields.” She and Emery were joined by two instructors who both use clickers to manage interactions in their classes: William White, professor of industrial engineering and management sciences, and Owen Priest, professor of instruction who teaches organic chemistry.

The four faculty members compared how they used different technologies to assess students’ preparedness for class, uncover topics that needed more time, and quiz students on-the-fly during in-class activities. Together they answered many TEACHx participant questions about the nuts and bolts of how they set things up for their classes, what worked, what didn’t, and why they made some of the choices they did.

Throughout the 2017-18 school year, we will revisit the themes of this TEACHx panel, talk with the other participants, and feature the different technologies Northwestern instructors are using to make their classrooms more engaging, democratic, and effective. If you think your class might benefit from a student response system but need a little instructional design support or technological guidance, reach out to the faculty support team at