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Classroom scene with students using TOWER on laptops.
Sharing knowledge and fostering innovation to transform education

Classroom Quiz Show

A new education platform developed at The University of Texas at Austin is helping answer two critical questions about classrooms of the future: What’s the best way to use online technology in higher education? And how can we increase student learning and success in classes with 500 students or more?

Psychology professors James Pennebaker and Sam Gosling have been team-teaching Introduction to Psychology since 2006. The large-format course has more than 1,000 students, which means the pair interacts with 12 percent of the university’s freshmen each year.

Their effort to help students have meaningful, online discussions about the course materials has turned into a full-blown technology system that uses a student’s own laptop or iPad to deliver personalized in-class quizzes, class exercises, small discussion groups and online texts.

The results? Higher student exam scores, better attendance and significantly fewer disparities in grades and performance among students of different ethnicities and social classes. The benefits also appear to spill over in the form of improved performance in the student’s other classes during that semester as well as down the road.

“We force kids to learn how to study and think,” said Pennebaker, who is the chair of the psychology department. “These are students who have always done well at their high schools, but to succeed in college they need to learn to do things differently.”

Classroom scene with students using TOWER on laptops.With Texas Online World of Educational Research, or TOWER, a student’s in-class quiz questions are determined by the questions he or she answered correctly (or incorrectly) the previous class. Students can solve problems in class with other students who are matched with them by a computer — not their social calendar. Less time talking to roommates about weekend plans, more time discussing class material. 

The professors have also ditched the traditional textbook. Instead, they use journal articles, Wikipedia, TED Talks, chapters from their own books and other online material.

“This is the way that students today acquire information,” said Pennebaker. “It also frees them from a $170 textbook.”

The effort, part of the university’s Course Transformation Program, is based on the latest psychological research into how people learn. The best courses provide rapid and personal feedback, personalized exercises to reinforce in-class learning, and valuable in-class discussion groups. They also adapt to changing student habits in accessing information.

Now the team is looking at ways to expand TOWER’s use in other courses, and an online real-time format is being implemented this fall with nearly 1,000 students.

“What initially started as an online chat room for students has turned into something much more complex and much more powerful,” said Gosling, who specializes in personality psychology. “It’s the confluence of ideas about technology and learning behavior that can change what we know about education.”

Learn more about how UT Austin is Transforming Education