What are the pedagogical uses of a student response system?

Last Updated: Mon June 3, 2019

What is a student response system?

In its most basic form, a student response system (SRS) is a systematic way of assessing student learning in real time. In many ways student response systems have been around as long as teaching. Many teachers will ask for visual or other signs of understanding such as a simple “Raise your hand if you have a question” or a more sophisticated “Hold up a blue paper if you think it’s option A or a red paper if you think it’s option B.” However, usually when the instructor asks a question during class, just a few students get a chance to participate. Instructors recognize that this is like seeing a tip of the iceberg and that there’s much more hidden beneath the ocean. This makes it challenging for the instructor to know how well the content is being understood and by how many students.

Technological innovation has created better and more comprehensive student response systems. By using an SRS such as Top Hat, instructors can now ask detailed questions and get immediate, comprehensive feedback that includes everyone in the course. Student responses can range from simple multiple choice questions to free-form responses to the ability to pick a spot in a map or image. Digital student response systems allow instructors to not only better measure students’ understanding of key concepts, they also encourage active learning by allowing everyone in the classroom a chance to participate and engage in a way they previously could not.

What can I use a student response system for?

There are a variety of ways that a student response system can help during class time. Below are a few examples that you may find helpful in figuring out how an SRS can help you achieve your teaching and learning goals.

Formative Assessment
An SRS allows instructors to assess student learning and understanding in a wide variety of ways. Instructors ask a simple multiple choice question based off a key concept to see what percentage of students understand it. Many SRSs (such as Top Hat) also offer word clouds and/or the ability for students to give short answers. Depending on the responses, the instructor can then choose to move on with the course or spend time re-teaching or reviewing. Instructors can also reinforce key concepts simply by asking a question about it, regardless of what the student responses reveal.

Assessing Attitudes, Biases and Misconceptions
When addressing a controversial or difficult issue, an SRS can help an instructor gauge students’ attitudes, biases or misconceptions of the issue before discussing it as a class. By making student responses anonymous, instructors can allow students the ability to express opinions or react to controversial topics without worrying about being publicly tagged with an unpopular or controversial opinion. An SRS is also useful for finding out students’ cultural attitudes and preferences, even for non-controversial topics.

In-Class Quizzing
Many SRSs have the ability to build quizzes that students can take in class with the instructor acting as a proctor. Top Hat further allows any graded quizzes to be passed to the Canvas gradebook as part of the student’s grade for the course.

Assessing Prior Knowledge
SRSs allow instructors to easily ask a few questions that will reveal students’ prior knowledge of a subject broadly speaking. This can be as simple as asking how many students have heard of a key term or concept or as complicated as asking a series of questions that are calculated to reveal where students are at with a certain topic or discipline. Instructors can then use this real-time assessment to determine what concepts to cover and in what depth.

Taking Attendance
An SRS is also a convenient way to take attendance in a large course and can offer an incentive for students not to skip class thinking they will not be missed. Though this is a supplementary functionality of SRSs, we do not recommend this being its primary function as students do not appreciate having to pay money so a professor can only take their attendance with it.

What are my student response system options?

As part of the the Learn@UW suite of learning technologies, UW-Madison selected Top Hat as our preferred SRS vendor. This means that the Learn@UW-Madison team offers support for Top Hat through pedagogical consults, technical support and hosted trainings offered by Top Hat representatives. While instructors can use Top Hat for free, it does require students to buy a license. Because UW-Madison offers Top Hat as the preferred SRS, there is discounted pricing for students. There are many other SRS vendors and options out there (such as Socrative.com and iClicker), each with pros and cons. While some offer free scaled-down versions of their product, nearly all require some form of payment to access advanced features or to support more than a few people at a time.

Are the tools integrated into my LMS?

At UW-Madison, Top Hat is integrated with the Canvas learning management system so that it can can sync its roster with your Canvas course and pass grades to the Canvas gradebook. Top Hat is currently working on deep linking its activities in Canvas, so other benefits from its integration are coming soon.

Who can I talk to for more information?

Our learning technology consultants are happy to help you choose the best tool to fit your needs and start using it to improve student success. Contact the DoIT Help Desk to schedule an appointment with a DoIT Academic Technology consultant. In addition, the Learn@UW KnowledgeBase offers helpful documents for instructors, course owners and students.


Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison