VIGNETTE: Use of Personal Response System in Classrooms

Sihui Ma

Years of research on neuroscience and the scholarship of teaching and learning have provided solid evidence that students get knowledge through active learning (National Research Council, 2000)[1]. Instead of pouring knowledge into students’ heads (passive learning), active learning requires students to construct understanding rather than purely receiving. Often, active learning provides students a richer experience than listening to lectures that likely involve elaborative encoding and experiential memory (Brown, 2014). Personal response systems—from traditional handheld iClickers to smartphone-based applications such as TopHat to the polling function of Zoom for virtual classrooms—is one practical tool that can allow teachers to implement active learning in the classroom (Silberman, 1996).

In addition to active learning and student engagement, personal response systems provide instant evidence of student learning. It is well-established that we learn from practice and feedback (Schmidt, 2019). By giving frequent evaluations about student performance, we help our students learn through guidance on future effort. However, if the feedback is not provided early on, it is less effective at helping students stay on track after multiple attempts. The use of a personal response system in the classroom can prompt feedback on student learning that can be incorporated in subsequent teaching and learning.

Before investing in personal response systems, teachers often consider the following questions: (1) Which one should I choose, handheld or smartphone-based? (2) How much does it cost? (3) Does it improve the academic performance of students? (4) Do students like it? (5) Is it a distraction to students? The research findings on using a smartphone-based application (TopHat) in an undergraduate Food Science class may provide you some insights into the above questions (S. Ma, Steger, Doolittle, & Stewart, 2018; Sihui Ma et al., 2020). TopHat is an application that students install on their smartphones. Using the Polls and Quizzes function, teachers can ask fourteen different types of questions to assess student learning. In this class, TopHat was used to break down each of the 50-min lectures into three shorter episodes.

We chose the smartphone-based personal response systems over the traditional handheld ones for several reasons.

  1. For student learning, this application allows for the ability to use questions other than simply true/false or multiple-choice—for example, circling the wine production region on a map.
  2. Additionally, we were curious if we can turn smartphones into an instructional tool for both teaching and learning. We cannot deny that we bring our smartphones everywhere, and use them frequently, including attending classes via their device (Tindell & Bohlander, 2012). On the other hand, we cannot deny the evidence that multitasking, such as listening to lectures while using smartphones, is detrimental to student learning and performance (Schmidt, 2020). These significant problems bring us the golden opportunity to teach our students to use their smartphones to help them learn effectively.
  3. This is a new area of research that we want to explore and eventually contribute our findings to the scholarship of teaching and learning.

The cost of using TopHat is problematic. The Pro version of TopHat is free for teachers, but students may need to pay. The basic version of TopHat is free to students, but it only comes with the polling feature; the quiz feature is not included. So if you would like to assign points to the questions that are implemented using TopHat and include the points in your grade book, students will need to purchase the Pro version, which (as of this writing) is $30 per student for four months, or $48 per student for 12 months. The cost is more justifiable if students use TopHat in multiple classes for multiple terms or if the institution purchases a campus-wide subscription (TopHat, 2021). Another cost-saving approach is to ask the teaching and learning center on campus if they are willing to cover the cost through teaching enhancement grants, but this method may not be sustainable.

We found that using TopHat in lectures improved student performance in the Wines and Vines class. Student performance was measured using the scores on quizzes. Students performed better on quizzes covering content in which TopHat was used in the lectures than for content in which TopHat was not used in the lectures. However, this effect was only observed on questions that assess lower levels of thinking (Remembering, Understanding, and Applying) as defined by Bloom’s Taxonomy, not those that assess higher levels of thinking (Analyzing, Evaluating, and Creating). In other words, if you are teaching a lower-level undergraduate class in which most of the learning objectives involve lower cognitive thinking, using TopHat in the lectures is likely to help the student learn and perform better.

We used a survey at the end of each semester to collect student perceptions of the use of TopHat. Students believed that the use of TopHat improved their learning, encouraged more higher-level thinking during class, and improved their focus on the course. They also considered TopHat easy and straightforward to use. However, we do not know if students would still like to use TopHat if they had to pay for it.

We also gathered information from the survey results about whether students think they are distracted by using their smartphones to answer TopHat questions. Although the self-reported data show that students feel using TopHat did not divert their attention from the course, our observations tell us that students are likely to use their smartphones for non-instructional purposes after finishing TopHat questions. Further, the instructors observed that the use of smartphones caused a multitasking distraction that lasted at least 5 minutes following the TopHat questions. Students may be confident in their multitasking capabilities and may not believe multitasking negatively affects their learning. Substantial evidence gathered from research demonstrates negative consequences from distracted learning (Schmidt, 2020). However, students will not change their behaviors or stop using their smartphones for non-instructional purposes during class if they do not believe multitasking interrupts their learning (May & Elder, 2018). Teachers can help students understand the negative impact of distracted learning by demonstrating it in class activities (Schmidt, 2020).

Overall, the use of smartphone-based personal response systems during lectures can improve student academic performance, and students reported that they like to use them if they are free. However, smartphone use for instructional purposes may introduce a distraction to the classroom—that is, multitasking by using the smartphones for non-instructional purposes while learning. Teachers need to strategically incorporate smartphone-based personal response systems to serve their purpose of facilitating learning and avoiding the negative impact of distraction.


Brown, P. C. (2014). Make It Stick. Harvard University Press.

Ma, S., Steger, D. G., Doolittle, P. E., & Stewart, A. C. (2018). Improved academic performance and student perceptions of learning through use of a cell phone-based personal response system. Journal of Food Science Education, 17(1).

Ma, Sihui, Steger, D. G., Doolittle, P. E., Lee, A. H., Griffin, L. E., & Stewart, A. (2020). Persistence of multitasking distraction following the use of smartphone-based clickers. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 32(1), 64–72.

May, K. E., & Elder, A. D. (2018). Efficient, helpful, or distracting? A literature review of media multitasking in relation to academic performance. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 15(1), 1–17.

National Research Council. (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded edition. National Academies Press.

Schmidt, S. J. (2019). Rethinking our approach to mistakes. Journal of Food Science Education, 18(4), 76–77.

Schmidt, S. J. (2020). Distracted learning: Big problem and golden opportunity. Journal of Food Science Education, 19(4), 278–291.

Silberman, M. (1996). Active Learning: 101 Strategies to Teach Any Subject. ERIC.

Tindell, D. R., & Bohlander, R. W. (2012). The use and abuse of cell phones and text messaging in the classroom: A survey of college students. College Teaching, 60(1), 1–9.

TopHat. (2021). TOPHAT.

  1. How to cite this vignette:

    Ma, S. 2022. Use of Personal Response System in Classrooms. In: Westfall-Rudd, D., Vengrin, C., and Elliott-Engel, J. (eds.) Teaching in the University: Learning from Graduate Students and Early-Career Faculty. Blacksburg: Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. License: CC BY-NC 4.0.


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Teaching in the University Copyright © 2022 by Sihui Ma is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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