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Dr. Stephen Van Horn partners with colleagues nationwide to change teaching and learning

For as long as anyone can remember, the way teachers ask their students questions in class hasn’t changed much—the teacher asks and the students raise their hands and answer.

This tried-and-true system is the case except for the students in Muskingum College’s Introduction to Geology class, taught by Assistant Professor of Geology Dr. Stephen Van Horn. There, Dr. Van Horn has taken the questioning, the hand raising and the answering to a whole new level.

Along with a small group of colleagues across the country, Dr. Van Horn is using what is called a personal response system to not just simply ask students questions, but to measure the accuracy of their answers and, to a very real extent, the quality of his teaching. He became involved in the project after hearing about a program at the University of Akron in 2003 and was anxious to join the study.

The study employs a set of small appliances that look a good deal like calculators. At the beginning of class, each student picks up one of the units and takes it to his or her desk.

At various points in the class, Dr. Van Horn will pose a question that is multiple choice. The students, with their response devices, push a button to enter their respective answers. Via a receiver in the classroom, the answers are transmitted, tabulated and projected on a screen for everyone to see. It is then, according to Dr. Van Horn, that things get interesting.

“It’s just fascinating,” he said, “when you can immediately see what percentage of the class got the question right, what percentage missed the mark, and the range of answers in between. That data gives the class and me a whole new direction to go.”

The “new direction” Dr. Van Horn refers to is a bit of an understatement. With the immediate feedback the system provides him, as the teacher, he can immediately make decisions about the effectiveness of the way he is teaching.

“For example,” he explained, “if a very high percentage of the students miss the question, I know that there’s a very good chance that the information or explanation I’ve given them is not adequate. On the other hand, if the class is divided closely between two answers, that can lead to really productive discussions, either with me, or amongst themselves.”

One of the things Dr. Van Horn has been able to quantify is how well students can explain things to each other. Very often, he recalled, groups of students can discuss the answer to a question and resolve for themselves what lead to the incorrect answers. That, Dr. Van Horn suggests, is an excellent tool for the students and a good lesson for him as a teacher.

“I’m fascinated by how many times the students discuss something, without my interference, and I’ll hear voices in the groups saying, ‘Oh, now I get it,’ or something like that. It’s a wonderful thing to see.”

Once a discussion takes place, the students once again answer the question using the response mechanism. The tabulation then reveals on screen whether or not improvement has been made.

“You know instantly whether or not a different approach has worked in getting to the right answer, and that’s a huge reinforcement for the students and for me,” Dr. Van Horn said.

The students in the class are obviously aware of the fact that they’re using a new system of learning, but they also know that they’re part of a study that is taking place across the country. Muskingum College and Dr. Van Horn is one of little more than a dozen college geosciences teachers who are using the personal response system and evaluating its effectiveness. In mid-November, Dr. Van Horn represented Muskingum and his colleagues on this project when he presented a paper on the subject at the national meeting of the Geological Society of America, held in Colorado.

“The response was excellent,” Dr. Van Horn said of his peers’ reaction to this study, “and it’s not surprising, really. This is very, very exciting stuff for students and those who teach them.”

Dr. Van Horn was quick to point out that Muskingum College has been highly supportive of the project, as well. The college purchased the system Dr. Van Horn is using and, now that it’s in place, any faculty member on campus can use it.

“This system has all kinds of applications in many different disciplines and at all levels of education,” he said. “It is by no means restricted to teaching in the sciences, and that’s what makes it so versatile and useful. This is another potentially invaluable tool for making both students and teacher better at what they do, and that’s the most exciting thing of all.”

Dr. Van Horn is working with his colleagues from the following colleges and universities:

  • David A. McConnell, David N. Steer, Katherine D. Owens and Annabelle Foos, University of Akron
  • Walter Borowski, Eastern Kentucky University
  • Jeffrey Dick, Youngstown State University
  • Jeffrey Knott, California State University, Fullerton
  • Alvin Konigsberg, State University of New York, New Paltz
  • Michelle Malone, Western Washington University
  • Heidi McGrew, University of Dayton
  • Lisa Greer, Washington and Lee University
  • Peter J. Heaney, Pennsylvania State University