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The Plant Health Instructor

Volume: 07 |
Year: 2007
Article Type: Course-Curriculum Development
​Effective Use of a Personal Response System in a General Education Plant Pathology Class

Cleora J. D’Arcy1
Darin M. Eastburn1 
Katy Mullally2 

1Department of Crop Sciences
2Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Date Accepted: 01 Jan 2007
 Date Published: 01 Jan 2007


Keywords: personal response system

Electronic personal response systems (PRS) with devices to collect, aggregate and display response data were first developed in the 1990s (Abrahamson 1999). While the first system was devised in order to revitalize lecture-based courses, advances were sparked by two studies by Halloun and Hestenes (1985a, 1985b) that showed that college physics students were passing introductory physics courses without learning Newtonian concepts. A PRS system allowed students to think more deeply, establish positions, and defend their decisions. Viewing aggregate data showed the students where they stood compared to their peers and indicated possible misconceptions to the instructor. Researchers both within and outside of physics have reported that their classrooms were happier, more lively environments when electronic PRSs were used (e.g., Abrahamson 1999, Dufresne et al. 1996, Elliott 2003). Students report many positive attributes of PRSs, including anonymity, being able to check their understanding, and encouraging participation (Draper and Brown 2004).


In our general education plant pathology course with 75 students enrolled every semester, it is typical for a few students to participate regularly in class, for some others to participate on occasion, and for some to rarely, if ever, participate. In order to increase student participation, and therefore encourage active learning, we tested the use of a PRS developed at the University of Illinois called i-clicker. The system allowed the instructor to pose questions during class periods that could be answered anonymously by each student. The aggregate data could be viewed by the instructor and shared with the class, leading to opportunities for peer teaching by students and for adjustments in content or emphasis by the instructor. Student responses to the PRS were positive in both surveys and focus groups, and the instructors benefited from the “just in time” teaching that the system facilitates.



The i-clicker system ( was developed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and is now commercially available through Holtzbrinck Publishers. Each student was provided with a hand-held unit that contains both a radio frequency transmitter and receiver. The commercial units (Figure 1, right) are sleeker than the beta test units used in this study, but function in the same manner. Students registered their units in a central database and were responsible for returning them at the end of the semester. In future years, the hand-held units will be available for students to purchase at local bookstores. Students will be able to use the same unit in any class that utilizes the i-clicker system and can keep the unit throughout their length of stay at the university.

Figure 1

When a student pushes one of the 5 buttons, A through E, both the button pushed and a unique code that identifies the student are transmitted to a base unit on the instructor’s podium (Figure 1, left). The base is connected to the instructor’s computer by a USB port. All votes are recorded in the instructor’s computer and a log of the current vote tally is displayed on the base unit. The instructor can thus see how many units are turned on, how many votes have been cast, and the division of the votes among the possible responses (up to five). Students can change their vote until the instructor stops the voting process. A bar graph of the class results can then be displayed and discussed. Each student’s final vote is logged to a file that is saved on the computer and can later be uploaded to a gradebook or spreadsheet.

Plant Pathology 200

Plant Pathology 200 - Plants, Pathogens, and People (PLPA 200) is an undergraduate general education course taught by C.J. D'Arcy every fall and D.M. Eastburn every spring. The course fulfills campus general education requirements in both natural science and advanced composition, and attracts about 75 students from six to eight different colleges every semester. Some students are science majors and are very comfortable with the material, whereas others have not had a science class since 10th grade and are very apprehensive. Over the past 13 years, we have used a variety of instructional formats and media to try to ensure that each student in PLPA 200 has the opportunity to master the course material. During the 2004-2005 academic year, we participated in a campus beta test of i-clickers in order to assess the effect of a PRS on learning and teaching in our course.

In Fall 2004, 80 students from 7 different colleges of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign were enrolled. Thirty of the students were women. Ten were sophomores, 31 juniors, and 39 seniors. Thirty-two of the students were majoring in a science-related field. In Spring 2005 70 students from 6 colleges were enrolled. The class had 34 women and 25 science majors. Two of the students were freshmen, 11 sophomores, 28 juniors and 29 seniors.

Use of i-clickers in Plant Pathology 200

i-clickers were distributed to and used by students on the first day of class. The students registered their i-clickers on-line, even though in this class the i-clickers were not used to monitor attendance or for graded exercises. Throughout the semester, students responded in class (Figure 2) to questions designed for several purposes:

Figure 2
  • to gather information about the students’ backgrounds and level of knowledge

    How big is your home town? A: <1000, B: 1000-10,000, C: 10,000-100,000, D: 100,000-1,000,000, E: >1,000,000

    Bacteria are A: bigger than a breadbox, B: bigger than a plant cell, C: bigger than a hypha, D: bigger than a virus, E: smaller than all of these (You may have to explain what a breadbox is.)

  • to share students’ knowledge and experiences

    How much have you heard or read about genetic modification of plants? A: a great deal, B: some, C: none

    The national beverage of England is A: Bass Ale, B: coffee, C: Coke, D: gin and tonic, E: tea

  • to poll students’ opinions

    Do you think that foods made from plants treated with pesticides are safe to eat? A: yes, B: no, C: not sure

    Do we currently produce enough food to adequately feed the population of the world? A: yes, B: no, C: not sure

  • to test comprehension of course material (e.g., Figure 3)

    The pathogen responsible for the Irish potato famine was A: late blight, B: Lumper, C: Phytophthora infestans, D: Robert Peel

    The primary inoculum in the soybean cyst disease cycle is A: cysts, B: eggs, C: juveniles, D: adult males, E: adult females

  • to review on-line quiz questions - A five question multiple choice quiz was taken by students each week, with questions generated randomly from a question bank. In class the following week the 3-5 most commonly missed questions were reviewed by asking the entire class to respond using their i-clickers.
Figure 3

Student Surveys

Student surveys were conducted twice each semester: once early (the second or third week of class) and once late (the last week of class). Each survey consisted of five short-answer questions, followed by a space for additional comments.

The questions on the early survey were:

  1. Do the i-clickers add to your enjoyment of PLPA 200? (a lot, some, not really)
  2. Do the i-clickers improve your learning in PLPA 200? (a lot, some, not really)
  3. In PLPA 200, are the i-clickers being used (too rarely, just right, too often)?
  4. Other UIUC classes are using i-clickers to monitor attendance. Do you think that’s a good idea? (yes, no, no opinion)
  5. Other UIUC instructors are giving credit for correct i-clicker answers. Do you think that’s a good idea? (yes, no, no opinion)

The questions on the late survey were:

  1. Did the i-clickers add to your enjoyment of PLPA 200? (a lot, some, not really)
  2. Did the i-clickers improve your learning in PLPA 200? (a lot, some, not really)
  3. In PLPA 200, were the i-clickers used (too rarely, just right, too often)?
  4. How often did you use your i-clicker in class? (often, some of the time, rarely, never)
  5. Regardless of whether you used your own i-clicker regularly, did i-clicker questions increase your participation in class? (a lot, some, not really)

Student Focus Groups

Student volunteers participated in six focus groups that were designed to provide the instructors with feedback about PLPA 200. The focus groups were conducted after students had completed the class and were led by a Graduate Research Assistant. Groups of three to seven students were asked a series of questions designed to elicit explanations of their preferences for the various instructional formats and media used in the class, including i-clickers. Audio recordings of focus group sessions were transcribed and coded.


Student Surveys

Results of the early surveys (Table 1) indicated that >90% of the students enjoyed using i-clickers and >85% believed the PRS enhanced their learning. While most students reported that the i-clickers were being used at a good frequency during class, about 20% thought they could be used more often. More students opposed the use of the PRS to either monitor attendance or to assign credit than favored either of these uses.

Table 1. Early i-clicker survey results.

Question Responses Fall 2004 (%) Spring 2005 (%)
increased enjoyment
a lot 43 58
some 50 39
not really 7 3
increased learning
a lot 31 41
some 54 52
not really 15 7
frequency of use by instructor
too rare 21 17
just right 75 80
too often 4 3
use to monitor attendance
yes 37 37
no 44 46
no opinion 19 17
use to assign credit
yes 25 19
no 56 69
no opinion 19 12

Results of the late survey (Table 2) were similar to those of the early survey for enjoyment and learning. The frequency of use of the i-clickers improved over the course of the semester, with >90% responding “just right”. About 75% of the students reported that they used their i-clickers “often”, but regardless of whether or not they used their own device, 95% reported that use of a PRS increased their participation in the class either some or a lot.

Table 2. Late i-clicker survey results.

Question Responses Fall 2004 (%) Spring 2005 (%)
increased enjoyment
a lot 37 43
some 55 47
not really 8 10
increased learning
a lot 32 45
some 60 48
not really 8 7
frequency of use by instructor
too rare 7 5
just right 91 93
too often 2 2
how often you used your i-clicker
often 78 78
sometimes 20 17
rarely 2 4
never 0 1
increased your class participation
alot 47 57
some 48 38
not really 5 5

Student Focus Groups

Several themes emerged repeatedly in the six student focus groups. The most common theme was that use of a PRS promoted both individual and group thinking about the subject material during class. The importance of students’ being active and taking more responsibility for their learning also emerged in students’ responses to the open-ended question at the end of the written surveys.

“It forced you to be more active, rather than just copying something down and not thinking about it.”
“She would… have you talk to your neighbor, figure it out, and then by the end of class, um, you’d pretty much understand everything.”

Students reported having fun using the i-clickers, but they also appreciated them as educational tools. They were able to check their knowledge and comprehension of the material, without being graded.

“… if she would start out the new subject…, she would ask like what we knew about it, and that’s kind of cool because we saw that like, you know, we didn’t know anything about it clearly, [and had] something like valuable to learn about it.”
“I liked the questions in the middle of the lecture because I felt that it sort of tested whether or not I understood what she just went over.”

Some students also recognized that the instructors were using the PRS to make immediate adjustments in their teaching - “just in time” teaching that would benefit the students.

“I liked when she did the “C” for when you were confused, so that way she’d go back…”
“If 99% of the class chose the right answer, we could just move on.”
“I think it helps her a lot, too, which in the end helps us.”

Another common theme was the usefulness of i-clicker questions to break up a lecture and to refocus the students’ attention.

“Whenever he’s like ‘Answer the question.’, you know, you’d perk up.”
“If you were not paying attention it was a way to come back and get involved again.”

Finally, the fact that a PRS allowed students to participate in a relatively large class while remaining anonymous was a common theme.

“It was anonymous so you didn’t feel bad if you got it wrong.”
“It’s not like you’re raising your hand, so you don’t feel stupid.”

Two other, slightly less common themes that emerged from the focus groups were the ability to see what your classmates think and the usefulness of the immediate feedback provided by the PRS. 


Student perceptions of the use of a PRS in a general education plant pathology class were generally very positive in both quantitative surveys and qualitative comments in focus groups. Most students enjoyed using the i-clickers, a result that also has been reported by users of other PRSs (e.g., Abrahamson 1999, Brazen and Clark 2005, Elliott 2003). Since the novelty of a PRS is likely to wane over time, it will be up to instructors to develop creative applications for the system to insure that students continue to enjoy using it.

It is important to note that students saw beyond the entertainment value of the PRS, and reported that i-clickers served to keep their attention on class and hence to improve their learning. While this improvement is a student perception in the current study, previous studies have measured actual gains in students’ test scores when PRSs were utilized (e.g., Hake 1998, Mazur 1997). These positive aspects recognized by the students will remain even if the use of PRSs should become more commonplace.

A few students felt that i-clicker questions wasted class time - they “slowed things down”. It is indeed likely that use of a PRS will lead to less material being presented in class (Elliott 2003, Meltzer and Manivannan 2002). However, it was interesting that some students expressed concern that class time to “cover the material” was reduced. It is up to instructors who use active learning techniques, including PRSs, to convince students that although they may not “cover” as much information, what they do discuss is likely to be understood better and retained longer.

Most students opposed using i-clickers to either monitor attendance or to assign points. Their opposition to the use of i-clickers for attendance was based on the fact that, in a large class, the instructor would be monitoring i-clicker attendance and not student attendance, as one student could bring and log-in the i-clicker of another. The opposition to use of the i-clickers for graded assignments was based on the ease of cheating. We found that the devices could be used effectively without either of these inducements, although giving an occasional extra credit point for having and using the i-clicker did encourage students to remember to bring them to class or to actually pull them out of their backpacks.

From the instructor’s perspective, it takes some time to create “good” i-clicker questions, as others have reported (e.g., Dufresne et al. 1996, Meltzer and Manivannan 2002). Learning how often to use the system and integrating questions into the flow of the class requires practice. However, one semester was adequate for both instructors in this study to become adept with the technology and its appropriate use. This is in part confirmed by the increase in the students’ positive responses to the question “In PLPA 200, were the i-clickers used (too rarely, just right, too often)” from the beginning to the end of each semester.

There are several benefits from in-class use of a PRS, but two stand out to us. First, an i-clicker question is an easy and effective means to encourage student participation in a relatively large class. All instructors are aware that, typically, only a relatively small subset of students regularly actively participates in a large class. There are many reasons for this, among them shyness and the fear of being wrong in front of your peers. PRSs provide a safe means for students to test their knowledge or to express their opinions, and many more students will participate.

A second key benefit of a PRS is that it allows student learning (or lack thereof) to become immediately visible to the instructor. From student responses, the instructor knows when a particular fact or concept has not been understood, when students’ background knowledge is inadequate, or when students become confused. For example, during a rather long explanation of difficult material, the instructor can ask students to press C (for “confused”) when they get lost. If a significant number of students press C, the instructor knows to stop and address the problem.

If you are considering implementing a PRS in your class, you should be aware that there are several different systems available and they are not compatible. Some colleges and universities have decided to adopt one system campuswide, while others have not. We recommend that you contact your institution’s instructional technology group to determine the status of PRS use on your campus. We found the i-clicker system reliable and easy to use, and it is relatively low cost for students ($30/unit). Of course, it is financially advantageous if a student can use the same device in a number of courses over several years.

The most positive aspect of a PRS from the students’ perspective is that it allows them to participate in the class in a fun and unthreatening manner. The fact that responses are anonymous and, in our case ungraded, is very important. Under these circumstances, 95% of the students reported that i-clicker questions increased their active participation in the class. When the students are actively participating, they are likely to learn more information and to retain it longer, so we will continue to use this PRS in PLPA 200. 


This study was partially funded by a Teaching Enhancement Grant from the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the UIUC. We thank Dr. Tim Stelzer, Department of Physics, UIUC for supplying the equipment for this study and for helping us out whenever technical difficulties arose. We thank Linda Lee and Cloteria Easterling for leading focus groups, as well as data entry and analysis. Finally, we thank all the students in PLPA 200 who voluntarily participated in this study. 


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