Keeping them engaged – tech solutions for in-class quizzes

clickerWhen I joined my current institution in 2012, I was offered the role of “Blended Learning Champion” – basically I had to promote a combination of the best pedagogical tools, including in-person techniques and digital technology. As soon as I started, I learned about what became known as “the clicker fiasco”. There was a time, you see, in the halcyon days of 2010/11, when all students in my faculty were given little devices that could be used to respond to questions during the class. It looked a little bit like the one on the right here, and worked extremely well. Lecturers would embed questions in their lectures, the students would answer using the clickers, and everybody was happy. At some stage some inconsistencies in the software versions, or possibly some old hardware (the exact cause is unknown), caused the whole system to come crashing down. What was frustrating about this situation is that there was substantial buy-in from academics to use these technological tools to enhance their pedagogical practice, but the failure of the clickers deprived them of both their favourite tools and their enthusiasm for blended learning. Now, I think I have found the solution: Socrative.Read More »

Peer instruction – interactive teaching in a large lecture class

I attended a webinar before Christmas that was hosted by Eric Mazur, a well-known Harvard physics professor.  Setting aside how exciting it was to have a guest speaker talking live and taking questions from his office in the US, the subject of his talk was really fascinating.  Mazur has developed a series of techniques that can change the way we teach and here he was discussing “peer instruction”.Read More »

Blended Learning Techniques: Audio and video feedback

FeedbackOne of the biggest problems that teachers face is providing prompt and useful feedback to students.  When 200 students all hand in a piece of work at the same time, it can take over a week of solid marking time (9-5 for 5 days) to adequately assess all of those assignments.  Meanwhile the students would like to know what they have done wrong and how they can improve, and in an era of immediate communication over a week can feel like a long time!  What I will advocate here is a style of feedback that does not replace that in-depth marking, but can be a useful, complementary tool.  I suggest that teachers try to use audio or video recording as a way to provide general feedback immediately following an assessment.  This doesn’t have to be based on an overview of all the work that has been handed in, but can be indicative of some of the patterns that emerge as teacher works through the assignments.Read More »

Blended Learning Techniques: Online office hours

At a time when student : staff ratios are relatively high, it can be difficult to provide the one-to-one attention that students might need in order to get the most out of their time at university, school or college.  Office hours are one way in which we as teachers can set aside some of our time to deal with pressing issues.  However, the regular format of these office hours tends to be a long queue of students in the hall outside a teacher’s office, and limited contact with individual students who might all have the same question.  There are a number of ways in which this process can be improved, and I’ll discuss two of those here.

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Blended Learning Techniques: Blogs

Scientists have always been very good at jargon-filled articles, to the point that the academic literature itself can be almost completely inaccessible to non-specialists.  In more recent times, there has been a big push for scientists to complement those articles with simpler pieces that communicate that research to the general public.  In a similar way, we make a point of encouraging science students to adopt the more formal, technical aspect of science writing, but we tend not to focus on providing the skills that the students need to communicate science outside of academia.  Web logs (better known as “blogs”) can be a useful medium through which to develop these skills.

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Blended Learning Techniques: Using Google Forms for in-class quizzes

I was looking around for an alternative to “clickers” (Who-Wants-to-be-a-Millionaire-style audience response technology) for use in a classroom.  These tools really do help with classroom engagement, and the students seem to appreciate the opportunity to interact with the material while the teacher is present (rather than having to wait until the exam!).  This also allows anonymous recording of results, banishing the fear that many students have of putting their hand up in the middle of a crowded lecture theatre. There are a few options, such as,, and  All of these sites use a web-based approach through an app or website to feed student responses back into a webpage or Powerpoint slide.  They work reasonably well, but are limited by either (i) not being free (a problem in this time of university cost-cutting), or (ii) being a tiny bit complicated to use at first (a major issue that reduces the adoption of new technology in teaching). I went looking for an alternative and found Google Forms to be quite a useful little tool.Read More »

Open Education III: How to post lectures/talks online

Next post, I will deal with one of the main barriers to the implementation of blended learning: the fear that providing online content will lead to a drop in student lecture attendance or performance.  However, the other side of the coin is that the academics who populate our universities simply do not want to have to learn new technologies to use in their teaching.  In a bizarre state of affairs, those researchers who are at the forefront of the most technological fields consider themselves incapable of learning a basic piece of software.  I’m going to try to make it clear how easy these tools can be to use, so that there are no such excuses!  All of these examples will be based around the provision of online lecture recordings.Read More »