Fast Facts:

  • Established: 2005
  • Number of Students: 7,300
  • Size of Psychology Dept.: 21 professors and lecturers
  • Number of Students Using Top Hat: 1,360 per year

Enabling students to collaborate for better learning outcomes

Picture of Meaghan Altman

Meaghan Altman

Psychology lecturer, University of California Merced

The Merced campus of the University of California in San Joaquin Valley is the first research university built in North America in the 21st century. It opened in 2005 with the goal of energizing the region the way UC Berkeley did the greater Oakland area. “We have a lot of bright first-generation and non-traditional students here,” says psychology lecturer Meaghan Altman, “and the university offers them new opportunities and possibilities.”

Altman started her teaching career while a graduate student at Purdue in 2008, leading an early-morning Intro to Psychology class in a 450-seat lecture hall. “At that time we were just starting to use PowerPoint, videos and slideshows in class,” she says. “I’d show students a Youtube clip, and give them pop quizzes on multiple-choice Scantrons. I’ve always admired professors who could stand up there and deliver a stream of consciousness for an hour and a half, but I could see how technology allowed me to be a bit more organized, and keep that massive class focussed.”

When she graduated in 2011 and took a position at Merced, Altman began looking for an alternative to processing 450 Scantrons—there had to be a more efficient way, she reasoned, to understand if the lessons were resonating. She began experimenting with the Top Hat platform to administer quizzes and get instant grading and feedback, which she’d then share with the students so they could all see whether core concepts were sticking.

“Students today have a greater need for support and community. They’re used to working together to solve problems”

—Meaghan Altman, lecturer

Still today, Altman’s biggest challenge in her large-format morning classes is to keep students awake and engaged. “First-years might think it’s easy to sleep in and not be missed,” she says, “but with the platform I can easily keep track of who attends. One of the best predictors of how students do, after all, is whether they come to class.” Once she has them in class, Altman uses Top Hat to administer real-time, interactive surveys to keep their attention. She then shares the data with the class to show them correlations, descriptive stats and the basics of standard deviations. “When we conduct perceptual demos [where students have a predisposition to perceive things in a certain way], I use Top Hat to show how ambiguous data can be interpreted differently,” says Altman. “I can teach them how to be good consumers of information, which is especially useful when we’re evaluating something as subjective as human behavior.”

One of her favorite exercises demonstrates how unreliable long-term memory is when it comes to detail. “I show them several clips of old Alfred Hitchcock films on their devices, do a distraction task and talk about cinema generally, and then I give them a quiz,” she says. “It’s amazing how poorly they do. They can’t identify the right people with the right movies. They remember characters wearing glasses who didn’t. The instant data shows us this, which leads to all sorts of interesting conversations about the accuracy of things like eyewitness testimony.”

Altman has found this type of collaborative learning extremely effective. When she was a student, learning was an isolated experience and an individualistic pursuit: the lecturer would deliver a talk, and she’d diligently take notes. Today, students show up with phones, laptops and keyboards, and they collaborate on notes in shared documents. They chat and share their classroom experiences online and in real time. “And they have a greater need for support and community,” says Altman. “They’re used to working together to solve problems. And although I come from a generation that emphasized solitary work and achievement, I’ve found that these students turn out projects that are better than what they could have each done on their own. Top Hat is a friendly medium that enables that essential collaborative learning.”

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