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Q&A: Chalk and Talk 2.0


Perry J. Samson


From application to graduation, technology has seemingly remade everything about higher education. Except the lecture. Long an island in the high-tech sea that has saturated the rest of the field, the chalk-and-talk method is finally getting an analytical look. Among the more strategic new approaches is a tool developed by Perry J. Samson, who has developed and sold a system that allows his colleagues to gather and apply data about their own lectures to improve their teaching.

Perry J. Samson is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Michigan.

It seems as though the lecture format is one of the few remaining facets of the college experience that hasn’t been transformed by the information age—why is that?

I believe it remains attractive as the lowest common denominator for both instructors and students. It’s far easier for most instructors to speak for 50 minutes on a topic they know than to design and implement active learning activities. Plus, students generally also prefer the spoon-feeding of a lecture. They may take notes, but the amount of cognitive effort is relatively low.

What was it that originally made you decide that you had to create this tool?

LectureTools started because I was dissatisfied with clickers as a means for student response. I designed a tool that worked on Pocket PCs so I could ask questions about images (like where on a weather map will the wind speed be highest). Then laptops became more common. I shifted to using them, but the students asked that if they were going to lug the laptop to class, could I also share my slides and could they ask me questions and . . . (the list went on). So I kept adding their suggestions to the tool and inadvertently created a tool that measures more about student behaviors during class than any other tool on the market.

Is more data always a good thing? If this were a question about weather forecasts would you ask the same question?

The new data on student behaviors provides the instructor the opportunity to discover how student behaviors are related to learning outcomes. They offer the potential of providing the ability to identify in week three, long before the first exam, which students are struggling. I believe data on student behaviors in class can provide a more powerful and earlier warning system than current systems that rely on exam scores and student background. I’d argue that waiting until after the student has done poorly to offer interventions is too late.

You approached the creation of this tool as a faculty member—how did that shape and inform the way it works?

There are many educational products produced by well-meaning entrepreneurs. I argue that the tools we need in the classroom should be designed and vetted by the instructors and students who will use them. In the early days, if something didn’t work I’d recode it and try again during the next lecture. That level of involvement is bound to make a product that is more authentic for other instructors. Now that LectureTools has been acquired by Echo360, it has offered me the unique consulting position as senior vice president of teaching innovation; I meet weekly with the product team to discuss the tools and offer my insights on what will work best in the classroom. This is a relatively unusual position, but I feel it has helped keep Echo360 in touch with the realities of the classroom. Moreover, we keep an office in Ann Arbor, Michigan where I oversee the development of new products and offer an accelerator space for other education technology startups.

In your experience, what is the ideal balance of personal interaction and technology in helping students learn?

Personal interaction is a key to a successful and fulfilling educational experience. The technology I’m interested in pursuing increases my reach in a large class and gives voice to those who are less confident. For example, in past years when I asked students whether they had questions, I would get few—if any—responses. In fact, when surveyed, only 40 percent of male students and less than 25 percent of female students claim to be comfortable asking questions in a large lecture hall. Now that there is a tool students can use to ask questions anonymously, and see all other questions and my responses, they are more inclined to ask questions. Last semester I had over 400 questions submitted digitally, and female students were asking as many as the male students. I see this as expanding personal interaction to a wider community. Without the technology I would inadvertently create a learning environment where female students (at least) are less likely to participate.

As you were beginning to test out LectureTools, what was the most surprising thing you encountered, and what adjustments did you make as a result?

The biggest surprise was what I started learning from the data. I’ve learned things that I had never known about how students behave in class and its relationship to grades. For example, I knew that one of the best (and unfortunate) predictors of student success is incoming GPA. I was able to turn this question around and discover how students with different incoming GPAs behave differently in class. These results offer some powerful evidence that the differences may not be cognitive ability, but rather poor motivation and/or study skills. I want to work with student advisors to use the results to design more effective intervention strategies.

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