Introduction to Public Health

Sarahmona Przybyla, PhD poses a Top Hat question to her Public Health 101 students during lecture.  

Sarahmona Przybyla uses Top Hat polling software to engage students and assess their learning in PUB101

Q&A with Professor Przybyla

How is the course structured?
PUB101 is a large undergrad course with 280 students enrolled. It’s taught twice a week for 80 minutes in a large lecture hall (Knox 20) on North Campus. The course is comprised of approximately 45% freshman, 25% sophomores, the rest are juniors and seniors. It is the introductory course for the new Public Health undergraduate minor.

What made you want to try Top Hat this semester?
I knew the course was going to have a high enrollment and facilitating face to face interaction is challenging in a large course. I wanted to engage the students in an immediate way that allows for real-time feedback and responses. Generally speaking, our undergraduate students are fairly tech-savvy so it was logical to use a technology they were comfortable with.

How do you use Top Hat in class?
Top Hat has a lot of features like automatically taking attendance. It’s easier to take attendance with Top Hat than passing out a paper attendance sheet every class period. In PUB101, 10% of the student’s grade is attendance and participation. Another way I use it is to assess student comprehension of key material during the lecture. I usually lecture for 10 minutes or so and then ask a question. I get real-time responses so I know the extent to which they grasped the material. If they did I move on.  If not, I revisit the topic, usually by presenting it in another way or asking a different question. I try to anticipate where the students will struggle and come up with another slide to help them grasp the material. This is much more helpful than waiting until the exam to find out if they understand the material. I usually ask 5-8 questions per lecture, so over a semester that adds up to a lot of questions the students can use to review prior to exams.

What has your experience been so far?
I find it incredibly useful. It saves a lot of time when it comes to tracking attendance. Additionally, students can see their attendance and participation scores as the semester progresses. They have access to their own data so they know how they’re doing. The participation helps engage the students in thinking about and engaging with the material. There is also the option to anonymously poll the students so I can ask somewhat controversial questions to gauge their perception. For example, I asked them about access to medical marijuana and if the minimum legal drinking age should be lowered. The results show up in aggregate form, so they can see how the class feels about the topic. I can also see if their perception changes after listening to the lecture.

Have you received feedback from students?
I was pleasantly surprised that many upperclassmen were already exposed to Top Hat. I also like that it was something they can use on their own devices (smartphone or laptop). Students anecdotally share that they like using it and having access to additional questions when they’re prepping for the exams. You can also embed YouTube video clips right into the presentation, so that has added to the types of questions I can ask.

Do you have any thoughts for faculty who are thinking about using Top Hat?
I think there are lots of ways it can enhance learning. Don’t be intimidated. Top Hat has a support team to help you, there are lots of videos and tutorials on their website. Their customer service is great. There’s a sizable chunk of faculty at UB who are already using it. I reached out to some of them and talked about how they use it in their courses.

In terms of grading and participation. I typically give students .5 points for attempting an answer and another .5 if they got it correct. This encourages them to participate. For the first 2 weeks of the semester, I didn’t use it for credit because I know students are often adding/dropping classes. It was like a pilot phase because I was getting used to it too.

There are a few other tips and tricks that I use. For example, I ask a Top Hat question fairly soon after the initial attendance is taken. I do this so students can’t say, “I was just a minute late and missed the attendance question, can I still be marked as present?” If they missed both questions, I know they are trying to fool me. I found it helpful to talk to other faculty who use it in order to learn those strategies. 

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