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Everything’s bigger in Texas—even class sizes. At the University of Texas at Austin—a 134-year-old research institution with more than 50,000 students in attendance every year—Classics Professor Todd Curtis knows all about big. When he looks out at his Intro to Medical and Scientific Terminology class, it’s not unusual for there to be upwards of 500 students staring back at him. For Curtis, keeping that many students engaged in a class focused on multi-syllabic Latin terminologies is an exercise in creativity. So, he tells jokes. He asks questions. And he wanders incessantly.

“I never stay at the podium,” says Curtis. “Students laugh about that because I’m walking all over the place. I find it’s better for student engagement—they’re freaked out when suddenly you’re standing next to them and you crack a joke, look at ’em and say, ‘Hey, you gotta tell the class what this is.’”

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Making a personal connection with students, and getting them to arrive at class prepared, led Curtis to try the Top Hat classroom engagement app. He was also facing a course-specific challenge—the need for students to be able to answer questions with long medical terms, which wasn’t possible with an antiquated clicker system. So in 2014, he tried using Top Hat in his terminology class, enabling his students to provide long-word answers. He added his PowerPoint decks to the course materials and started sprinkling review questions into the beginning of his lectures for extra credit.

“Top Hat has been pivotal. It creates a personal connection between the professor and the student.”

—TODD CURTIS

Professor, Department of Classics, University of Texas at Austin

“Prior to Top Hat, they’d put their five answers on pieces of paper,” he says, laughing. “It was the best way I could test what they really knew.”

Soon, Curtis was making the most out of the platform’s functionality with in-class polls, pop quizzes and a variety of mid-lecture question styles (from multiple choice to fill-in-the-blanks to diagram annotations) that helped make that giant room feel more intimate. By incentivizing participation with extra-credit questions at the start of every lecture, he also added a new, slightly competitive layer to reviewing past lectures and pre-class reading.

“The students enjoy it, because they’re going to ask me questions about extra-credit stuff,” he says. “Those extra-credit questions create a nice inroad for me to say, ‘Hey, that’s a good way of approaching it,’ or ‘I didn’t think about that,’ or ‘Hey, that’s a stupid answer.’ And there’s no harm, no foul—it’s extra credit questions, so I’m showing them what they know. And that’s a good thing since [as a student] you’re not being punished for what you don’t know.”

Since he started using Top Hat, Curtis has noticed a marked improvement in students keeping up with course materials and staying engaged in class. “Top Hat has been pivotal,” he says. “It creates a personal connection between the professor and the student.”

Curtis has since started using Top Hat in two other courses—Classic Mythology and Ancient Greek Medicine. He’s also taken a concrete step towards ensuring his students do the reading; This fall, he started using his own interactive textbook, A Programmed Approach to Learning the Grammar and Vocabulary of Anatomical Latin, which he wrote as a supplement to his main course materials. He wrote the textbook using Top Hat’s Open Educational Resources app, and distributes it to students through the Top Hat platform.

“I really love this format of textbook,” says Curtis. “It allows me to modify things on the fly and I can assess their comprehension of the reading material.”

Building off source materials he’d been supplementing his lectures with for years, Curtis’s new book—which includes activities that count towards his students’ final grade—is another way he’s helping his students succeed.

“A graded textbook is a novel idea,” he says. “That’s why I wanted to do this—it’s a nice way of getting people to read and to give them rewards for spending time with the material.”

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