Academic Exchange Quarterly  Fall 2011 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 15, Issue 3

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Adult Learning with Audience Response Systems

Deborah K. Anderson, Midwestern University, Downers Grove, IL

Anderson, PT, MS is Assistant Professor in the Doctor of Physical Therapy Program


Many authors have reported on the use of audience response systems in the classroom; however, few have highlighted the benefits for engagement and participation of the adult learner. The purpose of this paper is to review the current literature on audience response systems and identify the pedagogy underpinning their use in adult education. Strategies for incorporating audience response system technology into the adult education classroom are provided.



Adult learners who enroll in institutions of higher education often discover a learning environment that has been modeled around traditional students. Many adult learners who pursue educational opportunities after years in the work force or raising a family find the learning environment to be challenging and difficult to navigate (Pusser et al., 2007). These adult students often shy away from the interaction and engagement that is core to many adult learning situations (Graham, Tripp, Seawright, & Joeckel, 2007). The risk for boredom and fatigue is heightened for the adult learner who may attend class after a full day of work or be distracted by family responsibilities. Teaching strategies must be utilized that seek to engage and stimulate the adult learner during the entire instructional process in order to maximize learning opportunities (Wlodkowski, 2008). 


A contemporary teaching strategy gaining popularity is the use of audience response system technology. Audience response systems (ARSs), clickers, are small handheld keypads linked to presentation software which allow students to answer multiple choice questions while maintaining anonymity (Kay & LeSage, 2009). Audience response systems are being utilized in many educational settings to increase participation and enhance learning (Kay & LeSage, 2009). The utilization of ARSs has expanded into adult learning environments such as graduate school classrooms (Beekes, 2006; Keller et al., 2007; Kyei-Blankson, 2009), professional healthcare education programs (Miller, Ashar, & Getz, 2001; Wait et al., 2009) and continuing medical education settings (Miller, Ashar, & Getz, 2003); however, there is a paucity of information regarding the specific benefits of ARSs for the adult learner.


The purpose of this paper is to review the current literature on the utilization of ARSs and identify the pedagogy underpinning the use of this technology in adult education. This paper will identify issues unique to the adult learner regarding ARS use and provide strategies to assist educators in incorporating ARS technology into the adult education classroom.



A review of the literature identified multiple resources regarding ARS use in adult education. Resources included textbooks, peer-reviewed journal articles, conference proceedings, and web sites. Research databases utilized were Academic Search Premier, CINAHL, ERIC, and MEDLINE. Search terms included: adult education, higher education, education, audience response systems, classroom communication systems, personal response systems, classroom participation systems, student response systems, technology, and clickers. A myriad of information on this topic was found in the higher education science literature, specifically from the areas of physics and math (Flies & Marshall, 2006). In addition, articles were found in most other subject areas including: psychology (Cleary, 2008), education (Cheesman, Winograd, & Wehrman, 2010), physiology (Gauci, Dantas, Williams, & Kemm, 2009), anatomy (Alexander, Crescini, Juskewitch, Lachman, & Pawlina, 2009), biology (Crossgrove & Curran, 2008), chemistry and physics (Graham et al., 2007), sociology (Mollborn & Hoekstra, 2010), business (Mula & Kavanagh, 2009), medicine (Tucker, Candler, Hamm, Smith, & Hudson, 2010), nursing (Mareno, Bremner, & Emerson, 2010), and physical therapy (Wait et al., 2009).


Uses, Benefits and Challenges

Over the past ten years, there has been an explosion of papers and research articles touting the multiple uses, benefits, and challenges of ARSs for teaching and learning (Beatty, 2004; Caldwell, 2007; Mareno et al., 2010). ARSs have been used in elementary education, secondary education, higher education, and graduate education classrooms as well as in continuing professional education environments (Kay & LeSage, 2009; Miller et al, 2003; Penuel, Boscardin, Masyn, & Crawford, 2007). ARSs have been used to insert discussion questions into a traditional lecture, quiz students on their understanding of concepts, take attendance, engage students in large lecture halls, assess student preparation, survey student opinions or attitudes, provide summative assessments, and make lectures fun (Beatty, 2004; Caldwell, 2007; Hancock, 2010; Kay & LeSage, 2009). ARSs provide instant feedback to both the student and the instructor on how well students understand the concepts (Caldwell, 2007; Cheesman et al., 2010; Wait et al., 2009). ARSs increase attention in class (Beatty, 2004; Caldwell, 2007; Kay & LeSage, 2009), maintain student engagement in concepts (Kyei-Blankson, 2009; Mula & Kavanagh, 2009), increase attendance (El-Rady, 2005; Crossgrove & Curran, 2008), increase quality of classroom discussion (Beatty, 2004; Mollborn & Hoekstra, 2010), facilitate critical thinking (Mollborn & Hoekstra, 2010), and promote better student performance on exams (Crossgrove & Curran; Kyei-Blankson, 2009; Wait et al., 2009). 


A 2003 study of healthcare professionals (n=283) who participated in a continuing medical education course with and without ARSs documented higher participant ratings for presentation quality, speaker quality, and attention from participants whose speakers used ARSs (Miller et al., 2003). ARSs impact on increasing attendance in higher education courses has been reported by several authors especially when students are given points for clicker participation (Caldwell, 2007; MacGeorge et al., 2008; Kay & LeSage, 2009). When clicker use was not recognized as part of the course grade, authors reported negative student opinions related to concerns of “student tracking” instead of the focus on learning goals and outcomes (Caldwell, 2007; Kay & LeSage, 2009). Several authors reported improved overall communication and social skills development (Beatty, 2004; Caldwell, 2007; Martyn, 2007). In traditional classrooms, students tend to ignore questions and comments made by other students. When ARS methodology was incorporated into class sessions, students appeared to be more engaged in finding the correct solution (Caldwell, 2007; Kyei-Blankson, 2009; Martyn, 2007). Martyn (2007) discussed the ability of students to provide input “without fear of public humiliation” (p. 72). Improved classroom interactions facilitate the development of teamwork which is highly valued by employers.


Additional, yet debatable, benefits of ARS utilization involve its pedagogical impact on long term retention of course content. Crossgrove and Curran (2008) reported that students in a non-majors biology course, in which clickers were used in combination with just in time teaching and peer instruction, exhibited increased knowledge retention when compared to students in the same course taught by the same instructor without ARS technology. However, this same study did not find increased retention of course content for students enrolled in a genetics course in which ARS technology was utilized along with peer instruction (Crossgrove & Curran, 2008).


Instructor challenges to the utilization of ARS technology include the need for new learning and additional class preparation activities such as authoring, editing, and arranging questions. At class time, the challenges are more technical in nature such as managing the ARS, interpreting the data, and troubleshooting failed technology (Caldwell, 2007). In addition, ARS methodology typically takes up more class time thus requiring additional strategies to cover the same amount of content. (Beatty, 2004; Caldwell, 2007; Kay & LeSage, 2009).


Student challenges to the use of ARSs in the classroom most often involve the technology itself: cost of purchasing the handheld device, concerns about the clicker working correctly, and loss of the device (Caldwell, 2007; Crossgrove & Curran, 2008; Kyie-Blankson, 2009). Some institutions provide loaner clickers for students (Caldwell, 2007). Another challenge is student attitude toward ARS instruction. Some students did not like the change in instructional methodology because it facilitated more active learning, was unfamiliar, or the process was confusing (Caldwell, 2007; Kay & LeSage, 2009). Cheesman et al. (2010) indicated that despite the overall positive response of teacher-candidates to clicker technology, these students did not like the linking of grades to clicker participation. MacGeorge et al. (2007) explored potential attitudinal differences regarding ARS use in the classroom based on student characteristics and found that student attitudes were not affected by gender, ethnicity, or year in school.


Teaching Strategies and Pedagogical Underpinnings

The pedagogical basis for the use of ARSs is grounded in the Socratic approach where the students have the opportunity to think about a problem, commit to an answer, and engage in debate with their professors and classmates (Mula & Kavannah, 2009). ARS pedagogy is usually recommended for class sizes of 50 students or more (Beatty, 2004; Cotner, Fall, Wick, Walker, & Baepler, 2008; Mayer et al., 2009), but can also be used with class sizes as small as 15 students (Caldwell, 2007). ARS-based instruction promotes active participation in the learning process and helps students develop a more integrated and in-depth understanding of course content (Beatty, 2004). ARS-based instruction encourages students to take charge of their own learning and can assist the “transformation into a more motivated and empowered learner” (Beatty, 2004, p. 5). ARS technology forces students to commit to an answer which then elicits an emotional investment into discovering the true answer to the problem (Beatty, 2004; Mula & Kavannah, 2009).


ARS-based instruction is an active learning approach that parallels classroom discussion (Gauci et al., 2009; Martyn, 2007). However, unlike classroom discussion, ARS methodology elucidates which students actually know the correct answer (Martyn, 2007). ARS technology does not allow for dominant students to control classroom discussions or put forth the “correct” answer (Martyn, 2007). ARS methodology allows for instructors to modify learning based on feedback and to immediately address any misconceptions (Beatty, 2004).


Unique Issues for Adult Learners

Adult learners are self-directed, problem-centered, and motivated to engage in learning (Russell, 2006). However, when adults enter a new learning environment, they frequently go back to being the dependent learner of their youth (Knowles, 1984). Grow’s (1991) model of self-directed learning identifies four stages to becoming a self-directed learner: dependent, interested, involved, and self-directed. Stage 1 describes the dependent learner who learns best via lectures with immediate feedback. ARS methodology can provide the adult learner with immediate feedback. Students at the University of Wisconsin reported that the “clickers” helped them get instant feedback on what they knew and what they didn’t know (Crossgrove & Curran, 2008, p. 149). Stage 2 of the self-directed learning model identifies the interested learner who responds well to lecture/discussion format with goal setting (Grow, 1991). ARS methodology can be utilized at this stage to facilitate discussion. Cheesman et al. (2010) investigated the perceptions of teacher-candidates ages 21 to 57 years old on their use of ARS technology during a reading methods course. Course participants reported that clicker use enhanced peer discussion and helped them focus on the important concepts. Stages 3 and 4 of Grow’s (1991) model describe learners who are already participatory and beginning to take ownership of their learning. For this reason, adult learners in the first two stages of Grow’s self-directed learning model would benefit the most from the utilization of ARSs in the classroom.


Identifying and understanding the motivation for adult learning is a key factor to the success of adult education (Thoms, 2001). Adult motivation to learn comes from both intrinsic and extrinsic factors including “need” which may be based on job security, monetary increase, or improved quality of life (Russell, 2006). As there are no “typical” adult learners, adults’ motivation to pursue learning may not directly correlate with their level of preparation or participation (Hansman & Mott, 2010). Graham, et al. (2007) described students who are “reluctant participators.” Graham et al. (2007) identified three types of reluctant participators: 1. students who are reluctant to share opinions in class, 2. students who are hesitant to ask questions, and 3. students who prefer courses where participation is not required. Graham et al. (2007) found that use of ARS methodology increased student participation by allowing “all students in a class to participate in an anonymous, non-threatening way” (p. 248). Ninety-six percent of doctor of physical therapy students in a human gross anatomy course indicated that ARS technology enhanced their confidence to participate in small group discussions (Wait et al., 2009). The use of ARSs may help to promote an environment of trust and collaboration as well as openness and authenticity.


Thoms (2001) discussed the importance of positive reinforcement on adult learning. Kyie-Blankson (2009) noted that 83% of graduate statistic students reported that clicker use helped them to grade their understanding of class content and 67% reported that they felt encouraged by contributing to the correct answer. Seventy-nine percent of students in the Crossgrove and Curren (2008) study reported that clickers helped them better understand concepts.


As a final point, the adult learner frequently engages in learning activities after a day at work or in the care of others. This addition of life roles and responsibilities into the adult learning scenario may result in a learner who is fatigued and distracted. The incorporation of ARS methodology into the adult education classroom may enhance the adult learner’s ability to stay awake and focus on the course content (Beatty, 2004; Caldwell, 2007)


Strategies for Use of ARSs in the Adult Education Classroom

Incorporation of ARS technology into the classroom by itself does not guarantee improved student learning (Kay & LeSage, 2009). Kay and LeSage (2009) as well as several authors offered strategies for the use of ARS technology to enhance learning as well as strategies to improve instruction. Planning is an important part of ARS integration into any classroom (Beatty, 2004; Caldwell, 2007; Kay & LeSage; 2009). Instructors will need to spend time constructing ARS questions using appropriate pedagogy and focusing on learning objectives (Beatty, 2004; Caldwell, 2007; Flies & Marshall, 2006). ARS questions should be presented approximately every 20 minutes to promote engagement in the material (Kay & LeSage, 2009), no more than two to four questions should be implemented over a 50 minute lecture (Beatty, 2004), and no more than four to five options should be provided per question (Caldwell, 2007). Explaining why ARS methodology is being used has been found to diminish student discomfort, feelings of anxiety, and general discontent with the exposure to new technology (Beatty, 2004; Caldwell, 2007; Kay & LeSage, 2009). Instructors should plan in advance how to deal with students who have forgotten their clickers, students who do not register their devices, and technology failures (Caldwell, 2007). If clicker scores are part of the course grade or are being used for summative assessment, instructors should make the scores accessible immediately or at least on a regular basis (Caldwell, 2007; El-Rady, 2006; Hancock, 2010). Instructors may consider providing partial credit for any answer and full credit for the correct answers to decrease anxiety and minimize cheating (Caldwell, 2007). In order to address the issue of less class time to cover content, many authors support out of class preparation activities such as assigned readings and instructor-prepared class notes (Beatty, 2004; Kay & LeSage, 2009).



ARS technology combined with known pedagogical methodology provides an active learning environment for students of all ages. Utilization of technology is now an expectation of students who have grown up during the computer age and have a variety of tools at their finger tips (Kyei-Blankson, Keengwe, & Blankson, 2009). The use of ARS technology for summative assessment may be considered an opportunity to promote the “green agenda” as it removes the need for major copying, storing, and distribution of paper examinations (Hancock, 2010). Barriers to ARS technology include the need for instructor preparation time, university technology support, and cost of the handheld clickers. Universities that typically require students to purchase

clickers may want to consider other strategies to keep costs down.



The utilization of ARSs in adult education to enhance learning and participation is well supported in the literature. Adult learners face many unique challenges such as lack of confidence, family distractions, and fatigue. Some of these challenges can be minimized through the use of ARSs by providing adult learners with a stimulating and non-intrusive learning environment. Adult educators must consider the increased preparation time needed for incorporation of ARSs into the classroom as well as strategies to cover additional content outside of class. Managing clicker costs and providing ARS technology support for both the adult educator and the adult student will contribute to successful outcomes. Future research is recommended to explore ARS impact on adult learning in regards to age, race, gender, socioeconomic status as well as types of learning environments.



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