September/October 2003 // Tools
Wireless Response Technology in College Classrooms
by H. Arthur Woods and Charles Chiu
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: H. Arthur Woods and Charles Chiu "Wireless Response Technology in College Classrooms" The Technology Source, September/October 2003. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Recent advances in wireless technology provide interesting and effective solutions to two perennial problems in large-classroom teaching. The first problem is to entice students into participating actively. In lecture classes, a variety of diversions can conspire to distract students from the lecture podium. Some of these problems can be alleviated by alternatives to straight lectures—for example, interactive learning techniques such as group discussion or student presentations. However, many instructors are uncomfortable with using these techniques in their classes. The second problem is monitoring student comprehension. As instructors, we probably feel in general that our lectures are good, and that the students are learning quite a bit. Nonetheless, in large classes, we usually have no simple way of assessing how well students understand the material, other than by reviewing their mid-term and final test scores. From day-to-day interactions in the classroom, it is extraordinarily difficult to gauge understanding. Conversing with one's class can help, but discussion with a small (often the same) subset of students is likely to be seriously misleading about class-wide comprehension.

Both problems can be addressed with new wireless technologies now available. Over the past year, we implemented one such system, the Classroom Performance System (CPS) made by eInstruction, in our classes at the University of Texas at Austin (Woods in biology; Chiu in physics). At the beginning of the semester, we announced to the students that they would be required to buy a CPS wireless response pad for $34 from the University Co-op; the response pad resembles a simple TV remote control (Exhibit 1). During most class periods, we posed questions in yes/no or multiple choice format, to which the students responded by using the pads. A set of receivers at the front of the classroom collected the responses and sent them to a computer, which rapidly analyzed them and displayed the responses as histograms. Both questions and responses were projected via an LCD projector onto a large screen at the front of the class. The wireless system was less expensive, easier to install, and more robust than comparable hard-wired response systems.

Although more systematic study is needed, we think the technology significantly improved student participation and interactivity in the physical classroom. We often lecture with question/answer pauses, and the wireless system helped us to use these pauses effectively—by breaking up the monotony of a straight lecture and emphasizing important points. For us, the technology clearly indicated which topics were easy and hard, which topics were controversial, and in general how well the students understood the material.

Kinds of Questions and Possible Uses

Response pads have labeled buttons, which constrain the instructor to a yes/no or multiple-choice format. Although this may seem like a significant constraint, the medium nonetheless is effective with a number of question types. The three main categories of questions that we posed were:

1. Fact or process questions. These questions assess basic understanding of a topic. An example is, "How long ago did the Earth form?" However, this basic type of question can be made less straightforward. For example, Woods projected an animation of the HIV lifecycle on the screen and, after letting the students watch the animation several times, asked a number of more sophisticated multiple-choice questions about the lifecycle: "Which of the following lifecycle descriptions is correct?"; "Why do HIV particles put reverse transcriptase into the cells they infect?"; "Which part of the lifecycle do protease inhibitors disrupt?" Provided that the range of answers are worded with fine distinctions, such multiple choice questions still require students to think carefully before they respond.

2. Problem solving. In college courses, students are often required to solve problems through a chain of reasoning. Since the strength of the chain depends on its weakest link, we focus on examining individual links. Wireless questions posed in class tend to be short, typically involving one or two links (Exhibit 2). As with fact or process questions, an effective way to assess student learning has been to pose two or more answers that all appear reasonable.

3.Opinion or belief questions. These questions can provide interesting insight about prevailing attitudes in class. Some questions are sensitive enough that students are likely to give honest answers only if they can respond anonymously (Exhibit 3). This was initially problematic because the computer records all student answers and associates them with that student, based on a unique identifying signal put out by each pad. However, we bypassed this problem by having students trade pads with each other.

Other kinds of questions may be more appropriate for other subjects or different teaching styles. In this respect, the tool is considerably flexible—the only constraint is that the questions be posed in a multiple-choice format.

Benefits for Students and Instructors

The most valuable benefit for students is an increase in interactivity and class participation. In traditional large classrooms where the predominant instructional mode is lecture, students often feel that the class is impersonal—student input into class proceedings may never be required. The wireless system encourages all students to participate in every topic, regardless of how shy they may be. This is especially powerful when coupled with other interactive teaching techniques, such as student discussion with neighbors prior to answering wireless questions. Second, students know where they stand with respect to other students. After student responses are recorded, the computer displays a histogram of answers. The instructor can then indicate which answer is correct; alternatively, the students can discuss or argue until they arrive at the correct answer. If most of the class answers a question correctly, the students answering incorrectly may be motivated to read or think more deeply about the subject matter. Third, students can practice solving test-style questions. A common complaint is that test questions are not representative of the material covered in class, or that such questions surprised them in some other way. Daily use of CPS questions gives students repeated exposure to the kinds of questions that the instructor writes and emphasizes the concepts and ideas that the instructor thinks most important.

Altogether, the students enjoyed the CPS tool and thought that it helped them to learn the material presented in class (see Exhibit 4). When Woods announced the technology to his class, a student near the front shouted out, "It'll be just like Who Wants to be a Millionaire!" That sense of enthusiasm persisted throughout the semester. Many students seemed amused that they would be able to have their answers register and count.

The tool is also eye-opening for instructors. In the classroom, we often ask "Did everyone understand that?" However, our response—"Great, let's move on"—is often prompted by a nod from a single student. Wireless response systems provide a concrete way around this problem. By asking response questions throughout a class period, instructors can stay in touch with the level of student understanding. Often, topics that we felt were difficult were in fact easy for the students, and vice versa. The net effect was that we could fine-tune our teaching effort to the pace of student comprehension.

In our classes, using the CPS response pads also appeared to increase rates of attendance (see Exhibit 4). This effect probably stemmed from two factors. First, if students felt that their input mattered to the functioning of the class, they may have been more likely to attend. Second, some fraction of the total points available to students depended on day-to-day participation. Each pad sends a unique identifying signal (associated with a particular student), and the computer keeps track of each student response. We had the CPS software generate a log file after each class session, and we used these files when assigning grades. Typically, we made 5-10 % of the course points available through wireless participation. These points usually were not dependent on answering correctly, just on participating. This policy encouraged participation without turning every lecture into an examination. However, one could also use CPS as a testing tool.

Pricing and Distribution

At the University of Texas, we used what is called a "bookstore model." The University Co-op bought response pads from eInstruction and then resold them to students. The Co-op agreed to sell pads to the students for about $34 each and to buy them back at the end of the semester for about half that amount. Although we felt that this cost was reasonable, it was still an extra expense that the students had to shoulder. Student reaction to this cost will depend strongly on how well the instructor integrates the technology with the course material.

Each classroom was equipped with one or more receivers and, in some cases, a hub to coordinate signals from multiple receivers. A system with two receivers plus a hub can service a class with about 250 students, and it costs about $1,000. In our college, the dean's office recently equipped seven classrooms for a total hardware cost of about $7,000. This expense is significantly less than some other ways of equipping classrooms with response technology. For example, equipping large classrooms with hard-wired response technology can cost more than $20,000 per classroom. Thus, the wireless system represented a significant savings. Of course, several other items are necessary: A computer must be available to run the software (software is free) and collect student responses, and an LCD projector must be used to display the results. To minimize additional expenses, our college targeted technology classrooms that had been previously equipped with computers and projectors.


CPS wireless response technology provides an effective tool to engage students, to understand better how well they grasp material, and to find out what they think about current issues. It is relatively inexpensive, easy to use, reliable, and readily integrated into previously established class material. We intend to continue using it in our classrooms and have convinced a number of our colleagues to adopt the technology as well.

[Editor's note: Art Woods and Charles Chiu are not affiliated with eInstruction and do not have any financial interest in the company. Additional information on how the CPS system is used at UT-Austin is available at the UT Wireless (CPS) Website.]

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