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Electronic Voting: Interactive Engagement in Large Class Lectures

Voting Photo


In the academic session 2005-2006, the Schools of Physics and Biological Sciences pioneered the use of an electronic voting system (also known as a personal response system or PRS) in large class lectures. In Semester 1, Physics 1A utilised an installation of the Interwrite PRS system (identical to the original system purchased by MALTS) with Molecules and Cells introducing the technology in Semester 2. (In fact, this went so successfully in Physics 1A that we bought an extra installation over Christmas for the Semester 2 Physics 1B course as well.)

At the beginning of the course, students are loaned a handset (or clicker) that they bring to every lecture. The lecture is then divided up into chunks that typically comprise:

  • a short exposition (mini-lecture)
  • a conceptual (multiple choice) question to the class (in Physics we call them "Time To Think")
  • thinking time and individual response
  • (an optional group discussion and re-poll)
  • a wash-up and explanation (whose length is dependent on the response profile).
Voting Photo
Personal Response System

The technology is at the simple (and cheaper) end of the spectrum of what is available. It is based on infra-red signals, rather like a TV remote control; the clicker must be pointed at a receiver. Following advice from an experienced user of the same system in Glasgow, we quickly realised that technical issue of siting the receiver units correctly was critical to the operational success of the system.

The rationale for why this might be expected to work is clear to see: it addresses the issue of limited attention span, it involves learner participation and engagement and the feedback to students is immediate, explicit and non-threatening.

The evidence of its effectiveness is become overwhelming, both within Physics and across various other disciplines (the bottom of this page lists suggested reading). Our own evaluation supports this; students welcome the activity, and feel that this mode of lecturing promotes both their interest in and understanding of the subject material.

Perhaps the greatest challenge here is the pedagogical one for the lecturers. Framing suitable questions requires a clear understanding of student misconceptions; dealing with misunderstanding in the middle of a lecture requires real-time adaptivity. And implicit in the whole operation is the establishment of a two-way learning dialogue with the class.. even when it numbers several hundred. This dialogue in turn prescribes (at least in part) a move away from the content-driven A-Z tour of the syllabus, traditional in large group lectures.

As part of the project, we are in the process of evaluating student comments on their experiences of using the clickers in both disciplines. Initial feedback is very positive: in the words of one first-year undergraduate in Physics:

I find I am even having to think in the lectures!

Now that must be a good thing!

Project Status

This project runs from September 2005 to September 2008 and is funded by the University of Edinburgh's e-Learning Project Fund.

Project Contacts

Prof Simon Bates, School of Physics and Astronomy
Ms Karen Howie, School of Biological Sciences
Dr Paul McLaughlin, School of Biological Sciences