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Making a Large Class More Interactive and Engaging for Chemistry Students

Tennessee Technological University




Number of Students


Student-to-Faculty Ratio


Faculty and Staff in Chemistry Department

A chemistry professor wins a teaching award for his Top Hat-enabled interactive lectures 

At the picturesque Tennessee Tech campus, located in Cookeville, Tennessee, Dr. Scott Northrup teaches physical and biophysical chemistry at the College of Arts and Sciences. “I was always a very conventional lecturer,” he says. “And I put a lot of time and effort into my lectures. But over the years, I realized I needed to give the students a lot more time for classroom interaction, that the sage-on-stage approach wasn’t working on its own anymore.”

About 10 years ago, Northrup started using clicker technology in large lecture rooms of 200 students. He didn’t like that it meant students had to buy a physical device, nor that the devices were notoriously buggy and constantly changing. But it did encourage students to attend class. When he was introduced to Top Hat’s classroom engagement app a few years ago, he immediately saw the benefits of it working on student’s mobile devices (no more extra hardware) and its ability to pose questions with numerical answers, something the outdated clickers couldn’t do. “The classes I teach, like General Chemistry, are always heavily populated with engineering majors,” says Northrup. “So most of the work they do is mathematical. The Top Hat interface is really conducive to being able to capture numerical information, which is crucial.”


“I don’t use Top Hat as a testing device, I use it as an interactive device. I’m not as interested in students getting the right answer all by themselves. I’m way more interested in getting them to work together to solve a problem“

—SCOTT NORTHRUP Professor Emeritus, Chemistry, Tennessee Technological University
 Scott Northrup

Asking questions in class also broke up the lecture, so instead of Northrup talking without interruption for 50 minutes, he could pause and spontaneously ask questions, which he found completely reset the classroom and encouraged students to snap back to attention. “With a freshman class, sometimes I’ll even just pause and take a quick poll: which do you prefer, Coke or Pepsi?,” says Northrup. “That’s enough to bring them back.” For questions relevant to the lecture, he allows students to work together to come up with the answer. “Learning how to collaborate effectively with their peers is huge for work life following their education. Typically, they’ll send up having to interact with lots of different people. In that sense, I don’t use Top Hat as a testing device, I use it as an interactive device. I’m not as interested in students getting the right answer all by themselves. I’m way more interested in getting them to work together to solve a problem. This may sound way out there, but I give a 90 percent credit even if they get the wrong answer. That extra 10 percent comes if they get it correct.”

Northrup also uses Top Hat as a tool for polling students’ opinions and attitudes. “For example, I’ll ask, was the exam too long or was it harder than you thought it would be? Was it easier? Did you study the right things?’” he says. “All of these activities have helped me be a better professor. It’s enabled me to keep control of the class and keep them focussed. Quite simply, I could not teach without Top Hat.”

Two years ago, Northrup won the university’s Outstanding Teaching Award, as nominated by students and faculty peers. “That was especially meaningful considering I teach some of the school’s most challenging courses,” says Northrup. “Students don’t always have the best experience because I demand a lot in these classes, and they get slammed with really difficult material. So to know that the way I impart the material is having a positive effect on my students is extremely rewarding.”

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