Case Study: Engaging Students with Technology

Case Study of how one professor at Michigan State University utilized technology in the classroom to increase student engagement, promote critical thinking and improve student exam grades. 

Students walk into Dr. Kaston Anderson-Carpenter’s psychology course at Michigan State University, take their seat and pull out their laptops, tablets and smartphones. His classroom quickly fills with rows of students interacting with their devices. However, what fills their screens is not the social media or text messages that many professors notice distracting their students. Instead, students in Dr. Anderson-Carpenter’s class are opening education applications such as Packback to review their posts in preparation for the day’s class.

Dr. Anderson-Carpenter recognizes that today’s young adults depend on technology to do everything from communicating with their professors to conducting research and accessing their textbooks. His goal is not to discourage students from using their devices, but to use their devices to keep them engaged during lectures. “For me, it’s about being innovative in the classroom, whatever that looks like,” says Dr. Anderson-Carpenter. “I know that students are going to use technology in the classroom, whether it’s Facebooking [or] online shopping while the instructor is giving the lecture, it happens. So, I asked myself, ‘What can I do to get them using technology in a more engaging way so that I could minimize them getting off track?'”

Increasing Student Engagement with EdTech

For Dr. Anderson-Carpenter, the answer was Packback, a gamified online discussion platform that sparks curiosity by requiring students to ask and respond to open-ended questions. After learning about a psychology concept in class, students log onto Packback where they ask thought-provoking questions, debate ideas and make further connections about how the class material relates to themselves and the world. Dr. Anderson-Carpenter then spends a few minutes each week browsing his students’ posts and chooses a handful of conversations to discuss in class. To keep students engaged throughout the lecture, Dr. Anderson-Carpenter uploads a few student questions from Packback into multiple choice questions on TopHat. Students who don’t feel comfortable speaking in class can still participate by using their smartphones or tablets to share ideas in real-time via Packback or answer multiple choice questions via TopHat.

Dr. Anderson-Carpenter is not the only professor using technology to increase engagement. Many universities have adopted technology such as learning management systems, online discussion boards and interactive student-response systems (commonly called “clickers”). According to the scholarly article “Using Technology to Enhance Students’ Engagement in a Large Classroom”, EdTech not only leads to higher levels of engagement, but it also pushes students from being passive listeners to active thinkers. Practicing active thinking helps students reach higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy such as application and evaluation.

Promoting Critical Thinking with Packback

Increased engagement in the classroom was not the only benefit Dr. Anderson-Carpenter found in utilizing technology. “The primary outcome across any class I teach, whether it’s at the undergraduate or graduate level, is to promote critical thinking,” says Dr. Anderson-Carpenter. “It’s not just about regurgitating information. It’s not just about rote memorization. It’s really important to understand the merits of the information we’re receiving because we’re receiving so much these days. I feel that using a platform like Packback [is] a way to help keep them engaged in the material.”

Dr. Anderson-Carpenter has seen his students become more prepared and attentive in class since restructuring his course to include technology. Because students are using Packback to ask questions outside of class, they have the time to formulate thought-provoking questions that explore topics of interest to them. For example, when a lecture revolves around cardiovascular disease in a health psychology course, students use Packback to share personal stories about family members from different cultures who have been through similar circumstances.

Some of Dr. Anderson-Carpenter’s favorite questions from Packback included “How do we promote cardiovascular disease prevention in a culture where it’s not talked about and what are the implications for doing so?” This question sparked curiosity in other students who then began to further explore the subject with questions such as, “What things might have to change at the policy level?” and “What programs and practices might have to be implemented not just among the healthcare system, but also across other sectors of the community?”

“[Prior to using Packback, I] put on some Oscar-worthy performances. It was a lot more probing and prompting on my end, but with Packback, I feel the prompts are already there,” says Dr. Anderson-Carpenter. “And, it’s not me asking the questions. They’re asking the questions and I think that also makes a difference because it’s not coming from someone who has a Ph.D., who is standing in front of a class lecturing. These are their thoughts, the questions that they have. So in my opinion, it helps to facilitate the peer-to-peer learning.”

Improving Grades on Student Exams

While engagement and students’ critical thinking skills were clearly increasing with the help of discussion on Packback, Dr. Anderson-Carpenter felt he could do more. He took student-ownership one step further by taking student questions from Packback and reframing them into test questions. The results surprised him.  “To put it this way, in the classes that I taught last academic year, the class average between those two classes compared to the previous time I taught these classes, was a full letter grade increase on average,” explains Dr. Anderson-Carpenter. “I rewrote maybe ten questions on each [test] and it was just integrating the Packback questions into the new version, but the structure [and] the content was the same. I chose questions that related to the content of previous exam questions that I replaced, and overall they did a full letter grade better than in previous semesters. It was to the point that I thought, ‘Am I making this class to easy?’ But then, after going back through the Packback questions I realized, no, the rigor is the same, it’s just that having this additional tool to promote student engagement and for them to see how all these pieces come together, they’re really learning this stuff.”

By embracing technology in the classroom and encouraging students to use their devices to interact with the class material in real-time, Dr. Anderson-Carpenter significantly increased engagement in and outside of the classroom. With that increased engagement, students also became better critical thinkers and improved their application and communication skills. 

Want to see a live Packback community and learn how you can increase student engagement and critical thinking in your course?