Number of Students
Professors of Biology Dept
250 per year
Number of Students Using Top Hat
A biology lecturer at CSU Channel Islands connects with first-year students by using Top Hat’s interactive quizzes
Channel Islands, the newest outpost in the California State University System, has everything you might expect from an idyllic west coast campus: proximity to the beach, California Mission-style architecture and an active student body. Biology lecturer Lorna Profant joined the university in 2005, three years after the campus opened, to develop an introduction to human anatomy and physiology class. In 2006, Channel Islands debuted a nursing program that made Profant’s class a prerequisite, and her intimate class of about a dozen students skyrocketed to a large-scale lecture hall of about 100 the following year—notably large on campus where the average class size is 24 students. The nursing program is highly competitive, with only a few dozen students admitted per year, and about 250 hopeful students filtering through Profant’s classes. What’s more, she has a lot of content to cover that’s mandated by the nursing program, and no teaching assistants to help her or the students.
A few years ago, Profant received a small teaching grant from the Chancellor’s Office, which she used to make videos of her lectures. She intended for them to serve as background material for students to view on their own time, which would free up the lecture for more interactive activities and discussions. On the path to creating a more responsive classroom environment, Profant started using Top Hat’s classroom engagement app for attendance and for quizzing students at the top of the lecture. Attendance is always an issue with large classes of first years, especially as the term progresses. But over the last three semesters Profant has noticed that numbers have gone up slightly, and she doesn’t have to waste precious classroom time monitoring them.
“Students already have their phones in their hands, they are probably looking at them in class, so why not turn that into something useful.“
Recently, Profant has experimented with scattering Top Hat–enabled quizzes throughout her lecture. She counts the scores toward extra credit as an incentive to get students to come to class and, more importantly, the quizzes show in real time whether the students are comprehending the material. “I use it as an indicator of whether I need to reframe a lesson before moving on or building on it,” says Profant. “In a pop-quiz scenario you get a good sense of whether what you’ve just been talking about has resonated with the class. Sometimes I’ll see one-quarter of the class will pick each of four answer choices—then I know I have a problem.” Profant designs at least 50 percent of the questions to be difficult, challenging or problematic, and allows students to talk to each other before submitting their answers. “We look at the results together,” she says, “and discuss how students should approach that question if it appeared on a test.” The quizzes mirror the format of the evaluative exams—multiple choice questions, no TAs to help—which sets students up for success.
Unlike some professors, Profant has always allowed students to bring mobile devices like laptops and phones to class. “The way I see it, they already have their phones in their hands, they are probably looking at them in class, so why not turn that into something useful,” she says. “My colleagues say they don’t want students using their phones any more than they already are. My feeling is, you can’t police that. We have huge classes, we have no TAs, and I’m not sure it’s productive.” Profant likes the way Top Hat keeps students on task, and says her students respect the privilege of using their devices. “If they get off task, their grade suffers,” she says. “It’s that simple.”