Using Screensavers to Test Engagement

Engagement is one of those words that’s become pretty mushy. Everyone uses it, few seem to know what it means. I tend to talk less about engagement and more about Engaged Time in the classroom, because that definition is clearer: it’s the amount of time that students spend attending to the learning task at hand. In this smaller definition, engagement is the time they spend attending to the task, and the level at which they attend to it.

Assuming a well-designed learning experience, the more time and energy the students spend attending to the experience, the more they will learn. 

Unfortunately, it’s hard to test engaged learning. Observation (with minute by minute polling of student activity) is one way, but it’s pretty subject to bias, and such observations are hard to quantify. Additionally we can measure whether a student is looking at an instructor, but it’s hard to figure out, in any systematic way, whether the student is zoning out or parsing every word.

So I thought this study was an interesting approach to the question. In brief, students were asked to attend to a series of mini-lectures while pressing a key on computer to dismiss a screensaver whenever it popped up. Conditions were straight lecture, lecture and interspersed instructor questioning, and lecture with a interspersed clicker question segments. 

The clicker piece was horribly hobbled — no peer instruction, no bonus point set up, no individual registration of clickers, no focus on pre-reading. None of the things that would generally provide those large learning gains we see with PI. Just PowerPoints with periodic clicker questions. 

But putting that aside, it was a classic dual task experiment, really. And the hypothesis was that students using clickers, knowing they had to apply their knowledge shortly, would be more engaged in the lecture and hence take slightly longer to notice that the screensaver had popped up than students without clickers. 

The results are pretty striking:

Compared to an average of 10 seconds in the control and question groups, the clicker condition took 46 seconds to respond. Keep in mind that the screensaver was set to pop up only when the clicker students were listening to the lecture portion, not when they were using the clickers, so this is just about being attentive enough to the lecture that they don’t notice the screensaver. In fact, so many students in the clicker condition forgot about the screensaver completely that they had to cap the delay at two minutes for those that didn’t respond. 

OK, OK — anticipating reactions to this, we don’t know whether the attention given to the lecturer was the right kind of attention, there’s some weirdness around the setup, other mechanics of the clickers could be at work here, and who lectures like this anyway…

Well screw you all, I think this is pretty neat, and a nice way to confirm some of the stuff that we see on self-reports. 

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