CNU'S Inadvertent Experiment

by Prof. Jane Webb, Dept. of Physics and Computer Science

Christopher Newport University was the alpha test site for the Classtalk system. Jane and George Webb have been using Classtalk in their Elementary Physics class since the very first version was developed. The version the Webbs have been using identifies the students by name. The professors are therefore able to track individual performance on a question by question basis, to pick up on pockets of weakness in the class as a whole, and to discover what exactly the students have failed to understand.

In the fall of this year, 1999, the Webbs found themselves taking part in an inadvertent experiment as the result of an equipment failure. For the first time in a decade, Elementary Physics was taught as a traditional class. The Webbs tried to maintain an interactive atmosphere in the class, asking questions of the students, asking students to chat with each other, asking students to respond by a show of hands to multiple-choice answers. They were surprised to discover that students were reluctant to talk to one another. They were not surprised that the students didn't want to raise their hands when the time came to answer the questions.

As the semester wore on, additional evidence in the form of dropping student attendance and weak performance on the tests began to mount. In the final week of the semester, it is clear that the disappearance of Classtalk has had a profound effect on student achievement. Student attrition has been considerably higher than usual, and going into the final exam, student grades are significantly lower than in previous years.

The Webbs regard the following factors as having had a major impact on the class:

  • the disappearance of the daily quiz has resulted in an absentee rate per class of about 20%, about double previous years;
  • lack of the daily quiz has meant students do not inform the instructors of coming absences;
  • disappearance of Classtalk has eliminated the students' discovering their own strengths and weaknesses in problem solving, so they go into tests with an undue assurance. A large number of students remaining in the course will surely fail and will be surprised by the failure;
  • the anonymity given the students because there is no tool by which to identify them has apparently made students feel that the instructors have no idea who they are, what the quality of their work is, or whether they are regularly absent, turn in their work in a timely manner, and are in control of the material.

While the Webbs would never have entered an experiment of this type willingly, they do find it interesting to see exactly what the benefits of Classtalk have been. According to Jane Webb, "These students identify themselves as visual and aural learners. They don't like to read. They come to us with poor study habits. Classtalk has given us an ability to hold their attention and to bring them gradually into the normal college environment." George Webb said, "Because of Classtalk, we've been able to maintain our expectations of the students at pretty much the same level over the past decade. Now we know why our colleagues have been complaining about the decline in performance of students."