Although many students normally sit quietly in lecture classes, Yalies who take introductory physics classes will now be expected to attend every class and answer every question.

Now, when students arrive to introductory physics courses taught by professors Megan Urry and John Harris, they receive a cordless buzzer shaped like an oversized fountain pen. Using one of the five buttons on their buzzers, students can indicate their answers to a professor’s question by pointing the devices at receivers in the ceiling. Professors instantly obtain information on how many students select each answer, and they usually display that information along with the corresponding questions on a screen.

Physics Department Chairman Ramamurti Shankar said there are many advantages to the new method of teaching introductory physics.

“There’s much less pressure,” Shankar said. “In a normal class, you ask a question and the same hands go up every time. Now, every hand goes up, and if you’re the one guy who picked the worst answer, no one has to know. You’re anonymous, and you’re not influenced by what other students are thinking.”

Shankar said the individual buzzer system could be improved by incorporating group work.

“Sometimes professors have students gather in small groups and try to convince each other what the right answer is, and then [they] buzz it in,” Shankar said. “It seems to be a very effective way for students to learn.”

But the system is not limited to just answering multiple-choice questions. Because each buzzer has its own serial number and signal, professors receive spreadsheets recording how each buzzer answered each question. By associating buzzer numbers with individual students, professors can also use the system to take attendance.

Professor Stephen Irons, who has been very involved in setting up the buzzer program, said some professors avoid such advanced uses and simply utilize the system for “instant feedback,” allowing them to evaluate students’ grasp of certain concepts in real-time rather than waiting for a midterm evaluation or a final.

Tiffany Wan ’07 said she appreciates the system because it allows students to answer questions individually before discussing the answers with their group and re-voting.

“There [have] been times when I didn’t understand things, and another student was better able to explain it to me than a professor might have been,” Wan said. “The system fosters a good learning environment.”

Of course, the system is not without its flaws, Irons said.

“It affects how you teach. You have to build in some delay time for students to think,” Irons said. “There just isn’t as much lecture time. And if the technology goes haywire — it can really slow things down. A blackboard generally just works.”

The buzzer system was paid for by two internal grants. Sloane Physics Laboratory room 159 and Davies Auditorium are both outfitted with the system, which will likely be expanded to another room in the laboratory soon.

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