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Professors use alternative methods to motivate students

November 8, 2007

Imagine not having to raise your hand to answer a question or getting change tossed at you when you do. These are among the methods employed by UW-River Falls professors to get students to participate in class.

Physics professor Hyun Jai Cho has started rewarding students with small amounts of money when they participate in class.

“I think it’s a device that makes tensions go away,” Cho said. “By doing that, in my opinion, the distance between the faculty members and the students actually gets closer.”

So far, Cho has used this motivational method in only one of his classes, Mathematics of Physics and Engineering (MPE). This is an upper level physics course with 21 students.

“I start with the pennies; the least amount that I have in my pocket,” Cho said “The biggest [amount of money] that I gave out so far was a five-dollar bill.”

The five-dollar bill was the only money that Cho had on him that day.

“For me, personally, I actually analyze what he’s doing more and try to follow it a lot more than before,” Bridget Onan, a student in Cho’s MPE class said.

Onan was the student who received the five-dollar bill.

“I felt really bad; I didn’t want to take his money because I know he needs that for groceries and stuff,” Onan said. “I didn’t need it, and I didn’t want it. I didn’t feel that I earned it for correcting a sign in the equation.”

I gave the money back, but he put it in my jacket pocket after I left the room, Onan said.

Some students within the class feel that Cho’s method makes class more interesting.

“It adds a bit of fun to class,” James Rust, another MPE student in Cho’s class, said.

Cho’s method may be unorthodox, but he is not the first to use this unusual teaching technique.

“This one I actually learned from a professor Shepley at the University of Texas at Austin, and he actually learned it from the master in my domain, whose name is John Wheeler,” Cho said.

There is no departmental policy against using teaching techniques of this sort.

“He did talk to us,” Earl Blodgett, the chair of the physics department said. “We had a department meeting, and we talked it over. He mentioned that he was going to try this, and I said ‘well, give it a try; let us know how it works.’”

There is also no university-sanctioned policy against this teaching technique.

“Faculty responsibility includes, but is not limited to, the areas of curriculum, subject matter, methods of instruction …,” according to the UWRF faculty and academic staff handbook, chapter 3, article III.

Along with the handbook, there is also an assembly of University faculty members that deal with staff related issues.

“The personnel rules do not deal with teaching pedagogy,” Glen Potts, UWRF economics professor and current member of Faculty Welfare and Personnel Policies Committee, said in an e-mail interview. 

Cho is not the only UWRF professor to utilize an arguably unorthodox teaching technique. UWRF Physics professor Glenn Spiczak is also using a new technique in an attempt to increase class participation.

“We’re using iClickers,” Spiczak said.

Iclikers are “an in class response system that allows educators to administer quizzes, receive feedback, take attendance and otherwise test student knowledge without paperwork,” according to their Web site.

“The important thing for the students is then after the question. Then [you] put a histogram of the results up, so you see how many people in class answered a, how many people in class answered b, how many answered c, how many answered d,” Spiczak said. “That snapshot comes up on the screen of who answered what and they realize ‘I’m not alone, there are 40 other people that answered the same way.”

UWRF is using the iClickers on an experimental basis, Spiczak said.

Spiczak has used them on one of his physics courses, and the cost for the iClickers was split between the UWRF Center for Teaching and Learning and with Information Technology Services.

“It helps me a lot as instructor to know if I’m covering something and I think that I’ve covered it well, and I think everybody should understand, but I may ask a conceptual question regarding that and find out 60 percent of the class still doesn’t understand the concept,” Spiczak said.

The iClikers may seem to be an expensive teaching device, but the actual cost of the devices rounds out to about $25 for each remote and $200 for each base unit, Spiczak said.

The devices are wireless and for them to be operational in the classroom, only a computer and a projection screen are needed. So far, Spiczak and Political Science Professor David Alperin are the only professors to use this experimental technology on campus.

Imaginative teaching techniques are not subject to the physics department alone.

“In my Shakespeare class, for instance, I have students act out scenes,” UWRF English Professor Michelle Parkinson said. “At first they don’t really want to do it, and then they kind of get into it.”

Active learning is part of Parkinson’s teaching technique.

“Sometimes I’ll put them in groups and make them come up with lesson plans of their own,” Parkinson said. “It kind of takes the responsibility and puts it on them.”

Parkinson has also used the reward technique utilized by Dr. Cho, although she doesn’t use money as the reward.

“Occasionally, in terms of bribery, I do bring in candy sometimes and chuck it at people that talk,” Parkinson said.

The teaching devices utilized by Cho, Spiczak, Parkinson and Alperin are serving as a means to bridge the gap between students and professors. They may serve as a way to make a personal connection between professors and students.

“We are not just standing there sort of ruling on you,” Cho said. “We really care about you.”