Blog: Dr Rob Dempsey on making Psychology lectures interactive



Dr Rob Dempsey, Lecturer in Psychology, blogs on his experiences of using web and mobile app based audience participation software in his lectures to Psychology students at Staffordshire University.

Over the past six months I’ve been experimenting with audience response technology in my lectures as a means to better engage my students. Given the increasing sophistication of mobile app technologies, and the high proportion of students who own mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, there’s a real opportunity for lecturers to make their teaching more engaging. As I often teach large groups of students it can be challenging to develop sessions which (1) get the students’ attention and keep it, (2) get them interested in the subject you are lecturing on, and (3) inspire them to read around the subject in their independent study after the session. The last point is particularly important if students are to develop as curious and independent lifelong learners.

As someone who completed their Psychology degree less than ten years ago it is surprising how students’ tastes for lectures and their motivation for studying for a degree has changed, certainly compared to my own experiences and expectations as a student. Furthermore, the development of mobile technology seems to be having some unintended negative effects on students’ learning habits and general motivation for learning. Given that we can easily search for any information using our devices whenever and wherever we want, why should we bother to learn new information (or learn anything in detail) when Google always has the answer? Also, the sometimes irresistible urge to check our devices for new emails, messages and tweets, means that there’s a potential for students to easily become distracted by their devices if they’re not suitably engaged. I’ll admit it, I’ve sat through some pretty uninteresting meetings and checked emails, twitter, etc., whilst someone is droning on… If this is something I do, often without fully realising it, then students are equally likely to do this too! Rather than trying to resist all mobile devices (Would a complete ban on mobiles be enforceable in a lecture? Probably not), I’ve been exploring ways in which I satisfy that urge to use devices whilst also sneaking some “learning” in…



Possibly my favourite app for engaging students is Kahoot!, a free web-based app which allows you to create short quizzes or surveys to test students’ existing knowledge, their understanding of the concepts you’ve introduced during a session, or simply survey their opinions.

Kahoot! offers three options:

  1. Quizzes – where you can set timed multiple choice questions where students can gain points for fast AND correct answers. Even more appealing is that students are ranked according to their points tally and their rank will appear on their own device and on the main screen after each question (if they are in the Top 5-6).
  2. Discussions – an option to spark a debate or a discussion using more open-ended questions.
  3. Surveys – similar to a quiz but this isn’t timed or associated with points, but useful for getting a sense of students’ opinions on a topic.

Kahoot! stores the responses for all three activity types and produces downloadable reports for lecturers to analyse later.

To date I’ve used both Quizzes and Surveys in my lectures with our Level 4 (1st year) and Level 5 (2nd year) students. What’s great with the Quizzes is Kahoot!’s use of a Countdown-style timer and accompanying music when I’ve posed a question to the group. This really makes students focus on answering questions correctly and in the quickest time possible to gain more points. So far I’ve used quizzes to test students’ understanding of previous lectures (by launching a quiz at the start of a session) and test their knowledge of the topic I’ve introduced (via a quiz towards the end of a session). What’s great with the latter option is that lecturers can use this as an incentive for students to pay attention to the lecture part of a session. The promise of a Kahoot! quiz on the topics I’ve discussed, with accompanying prizes for the top ranked team, can really help to engage students.

Surveys, on the other hand, allow the lecturer to conduct a general survey of students’ opinions about a topic or simply check understanding without the time or points pressure of a quiz.

To give an example of my use of Kahoot!, my recent “Perspectives in Psychology” lecture to the first year students (“An Individual Differences Approach to Helping Behaviour“) first used a quiz to check students’ understanding of the key Individual Differences theories covered in a previous module, followed by a reminder of the Big 5 Personality Trait Theory. I then provided some definitions of helping behaviour (AKA altruism) and showed the students a video clip of a situation where someone received helped from a stranger and asked the students to think about which of the Big 5 traits would predict who would provide help (in the form of offering a coat to a child stuck in the snow – an “altruistic” act). I followed this clip with a short Kahoot! survey asking students to rate whether scoring high or low on each trait would be associated with a greater likelihood of helping a stranger (e.g. would high or low Extraversion be associated with helping?). After each trait question, we reviewed the responses via the results screen (giving a breakdown of responses) and I asked students to explain why they gave that answer (kicking off some debate about trait theory – great!). Rather than sitting passively whilst I waffled talked about which traits predict helping behaviour, I got students involved in applying their own understanding and reviewed the live results on-screen. I followed up this activity by discussing some recent psychological research using the Big 5 to investigate helping behaviour, followed by the introduction of a newer trait theory (the Dark Triad) which could explain more selfish and less altruistic behaviours. This session had a strong focus on introducing new content, something which one of my colleagues positively commented on whilst observing the lecture, in addition to using Kahoot! and it’s probably fair to say that the students (and me – one of my favourite lectures) really enjoyed the session.

There are some opportunities and limitations to using technology like Kahoot! The opportunities include: making lectures more interactive and engaging (which students often comment on in module feedback); testing prior or gained knowledge; satisfying that “must check mobile” urge; motivating students and focusing their attention by “threatening” that a quiz may be imminent so they better pay attention(!); as well as making learning more “fun”. However, software like Kahoot! must be used for a clear purpose in taught sessions, must complement the learning objectives/outcomes for that session, and I feel be used sparingly alongside other activities, otherwise students may become bored of being “Kahooted” every week.

Challenges with using Kahoot! and other software include: maintaining control of the session as students get VERY excited and can lose focus (the lecturer really needs to manage the room and ensure that students’ learn why one answer was correct and others were not); issues where some students may not own a web device (although students can work together in teams and share devices or borrow a device from the department, e.g. an iPad); losing focus of the session’s learning outcomes; taking the time taken to set up a good quiz prior to a session; knowing when, and crucially, when not to use such software. If my use of Kahoot! makes my lectures more interesting, promotes students’ knowledge and understanding of key psychological theories, and encourages them to engage in independent study after my session – great! However, the use of game-like participation software like Kahoot! by university lecturers should not be interpreted as a “dumbing down” of higher education (something which I’m all too cautious of – we should challenge our students in their degree studies). Audience response software should be used as a means of promoting learning and keeping students on their toes!

Finally, my top tip for encouraging participation in Kahoot! quizzes – prizes! Whether you offer a printed certificate, a free pen or some give-away chocolate (I managed to stash some leftover Freddos from a recent departmental event, which my Head of School hadn’t found and eaten… thanks Pete), make sure that you reward those students who came top in the quiz and praise all students for participating. If students answered a question incorrectly but then understand what the correct answer is, and why that is a correct answer, that is the real prize. Also it’s amazing what a bit of friendly competition between students, plus the offer of a mystery prize to those finishing first, can do!

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