Educator Story

How a Pandemic Changed This Professor’s Course Delivery Without Sacrificing Student Learning


Student participation in remote course delivery using Top Hat


Increase in exam scores after adopting Top Hat


Student approval rate for using Top Hat in lectures

The Challenge

Frank Spors needed a fast and reliable way to gauge learner comprehension and create a connection with his students

Without insight into the learning done outside of class, how do instructors know if their students are comprehending—or struggling with—assigned coursework? That was the challenge faced by Frank Spors, an Associate Professor of Optometry at Western University of Health Sciences. Spors teaches four large graduate classes taken by students with a variety of undergraduate backgrounds. He was looking for a way to provide a seamless learning experience while getting insight into student comprehension in order to better cater his course delivery.

In 2017, Spors made the decision to phase out a number of solutions he’d been using, including Blackboard and Turning Technologies, in favor of adopting Top Hat. He liked that Top Hat offered a number of ways to connect with students and track progress on readings and assignments, all on a single, integrated platform. It was a decision he would come to appreciate even more in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic halted in-person classes at institutions across North America. Like faculty everywhere, Spors was left with no choice but to shift to remote teaching to finish the semester. Luckily, his familiarity with Top Hat meant he was far from anxious about the unexpected transition to remote instruction.

The Solution

Spors uses Top Hat for synchronous and asynchronous teaching to maximize student success

Before moving to a remote teaching environment, Spors had used Top Hat to administer attendance, ask in-class questions, present slides, run his labs and assign quizzes to test comprehension, both during and after class. When COVID-19 shuttered WesternU, he found he had everything he needed—including the ability to preserve vital connections with students—to maintain the way he taught, but in a remote environment. 

To replicate the intimacy of the in-class lectures and labs, Spors leveraged Top Hat’s classroom response features in combination with video conferencing software Zoom. This allowed him to keep his regular class schedule, creating a sense of normalcy for his students just as COVID-19 seemed to be turning everything else upside down. Prior to each remote class, he gets students to complete a 10-minute pre-lecture assignment, which Spors designed using Top Hat pages—a feature that lets professors develop interactive digital documents, which he had never explored before but quickly learned to use. 

These well-structured assessments start with an outline of the intended learning objectives, complemented by embedded YouTube videos of Spors reviewing course material. Assessment and discussion questions follow, which focus on identifying the content areas that require more clarification. He uses the feedback from these assignments to understand how well his students are comprehending the material they’ve learned to date, as well as the content they’ve been asked to tackle asynchronously. From here, he adjusts his lecture and takes time to respond directly to student questions using Top Hat or ‘in class’ using Zoom. “I look at students’ responses literally minutes before the lecture to gauge their level of understanding,” Spors says. “Depending on how well concepts are understood, I either slow down, continue as planned, or accelerate my lecture materials.”

During remote lectures, Spors has continued to use Top Hat to gauge comprehension in real time by interspersing questions between slides, which students respond to using their device of choice. He aggregates the insights from both the pre-lecture assignments and the live questions he asks in class in the Top Hat gradebook to understand which concepts are proving the most difficult. “It took no time at all to make these changes,” Spors says, reflecting on the urgency of transitioning to remote teaching.

“I look at students’ responses literally minutes before the lecture to gauge their level of understanding.”

Frank Spors Associate Professor, College of Optometry, Western University of Health Sciences

The Results

Top Hat improved the student participation rate to 100 percent

When he first started with Top Hat, Spors noticed that the use of the platform for test preparation led to clear improvements in exam scores. Spors was so impressed, he conducted an institutional review board–approved research study to understand Top Hat’s effect on in-class engagement and exam results. He studied a single course, examining student performance in a year in which Top Hat was incorporated into his curriculum and compared it to a year where he didn’t use Top Hat.

Spors found that exam scores rose by 3.7 percent to an average of 87.3 percent for the class using Top Hat, compared to an average of 83.6 percent for the class that had done without. An overwhelming 94.5 percent of students also indicated they preferred classes when Spors used the active learning platform. “Top Hat is a one-stop shop students can directly access from their devices, wherever they are. It saves them from having to navigate different resources,” Spors says. This simplicity has become especially vital now that he and his students have moved entirely to a remote learning environment. 

Since the start of the crisis, Spors has noticed that his remote classes have maximized attentiveness and minimized distractions found in a physical classroom. He has even been able to continue running his labs, housing all materials in Top Hat, including slides with questions that are assigned in review mode for easy student access after the lab. Through his use of pre-class assignments and interactive lecture questions, Spors has noticed that student engagement has actually improved, with participation rates skyrocketing to 100 percent. At a time when the need for communication has become even more important, Top Hat allows Spors to stay connected with students, getting the feedback that will improve their learning, even in a remote environment.

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