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Interactive questions concerning online classes: engaging students to promote active learning.


According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education, in a survey of higher education institutions across the country, sixty-one percent of two-year and four-year degree granting postsecondary institutions reported offering online courses, and of those online courses, the vast majority said that all of the instruction in the courses was asynchronous Additionally, the most recent numbers show that the total enrollment in college-level, creditgranting distance education courses totaled 12.2 million, seventy-seven percent of which were enrolled in online courses (Parsad & Lewis, 2008).

Asynchronous internet-based technologies were cited as the most widely used technology for the instructional delivery of distance education courses. When asked why they were offering distance education courses and programs, schools reported that the most important factors in their decisions were: meeting student demand for flexible schedules, providing access to students who would otherwise not have access to college, making more courses available, and trying to increase student enrollment. Ninety-four percent of the schools that reported offering distance education courses said that they had developed the courses themselves and did not buy them from a commercial vendor, thus faculty are being called on to create new ways of teaching their courses and new ways to engage students when they are not with them in the classroom (Parsad & Lewis, 2008).

The Greek philosopher Socrates realized that people understand more by answering a question than by being told an answer. Having to answer a question requires an active mental response and places a student in a position in which they have to think. Practical experience in the classroom demonstrates that when students are asked to answer questions during a class, they are much more vested in the material and pay more attention to the lecture, and participate more in the discussions. The research basis for interspersing questions and having students answer them is sound. It is clear that for today's students to be learning, they need to be doing more than just listening. They are active learners. In a traditional lecture without interaction, the student assumes a much more inert role--a role that is out of sync with the way in which today's students interact in the 'real world'.

Research also (e.g. Maor & Volet, 2007; Persico, Pozzi & Sarti, 2010; Nandi, Hamilton & Harland, 2012) shows that a more active and engaging approach to learning results in increased and longer lasting learning. Using classroom response systems (clickers) to ask questions during lectures is a popular way to engage students in the classroom, much more so than merely asking rhetorical questions with no expectation of an answer. The ability to intersperse 'clicker' questions throughout the lectures is very useful in obtaining immediate feedback on whether or not the students have grasped certain topics, often ones that have been traditionally difficult for students to comprehend (Duncan, 2005).

Until now, the problem has been to achieve the same benefits of these interspersed questions in online courses. The nature of the online class has limited the effectiveness in being able to have the interactive question and answer component that professors currently have in traditional classes. This study explains the use of Adobe Presenter to create narrated Power Point presentations that incorporate the questions that would normally be included in traditional classes. In the narrated presentations, the questions are designed so that the students have to answer the questions before they can continue with the narrations.

Additionally, the questions are designed so that if the student does not get the correct answer, they will be redirected to some review information and then be presented with another chance at the question or a similar one. If they get that question correct, they can then move forward. Explanations are given for the correct and incorrect answer choices for all of the questions. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to explain the use of interactive questions in online classes. The study contributes to education theory by analyzing the way students learn and illustrating how technology can support and enhance that learning in an online environment. The study develops a method for the creation of interactive questions in narrated online lectures and strengthens the theory of using active learning to engage students.


Active Learning and Posing Questions

Some professors may believe that when looking out onto the sea of their students' faces that those droopy eyes just want to be entertained--that they are not interested in the subject at hand. Studies, however, suggest that these students are creating and engaging their social world in ways shaped by the technologies that surround them" and that these technologies are immediately interactive. Our students are therefore not disinterested, but are looking for something they can interact with in ways that are familiar to them (Guthrie & Carlin, 2004). For today's students to be learning therefore, they need to be doing more than just listening. Courses that rely primarily on lectures are not in line with how today's active learners engage with the world around them (Martyn, 2007).

In a traditional lecture, the student assumes a purely passive role. Most listeners typically can only remember three facts from an hour long lecture (Robertson, 2000). Data show very clearly that the success of even an excellent lecture is limited by the inactive role that students usually take. Most lectures are a one-way transfer of information that is very ineffective in helping the student master information (Duncan, 2005). Studies also indicate that students' full attention decreases very quickly, even in a matter of minutes (Duncan, 2006). In a regular lecture, students are generally attentive for the first few minutes of a lecture, but they become increasingly restless, bored and confused (Nilson, 2010). Conversely, when students are active participants in the learning process, their involvement helps them learn more than they would in a traditional lecture format. Students are able to develop a more integrated and useful understanding of concepts, their interrelationship, and their applicability to the world around them (Beatty, 2004). The body of research shows that greater learning results when methods are used that makes students active in the class versus methods that rely on lecturing alone (Duncan, 2005). One strategy to keep students' attention is to pause and create activity breaks. Studies show that when these are interspersed in a lecture, students performed markedly better on tests of the material. It is suggested that the breaks should allow the students to interact with the material just presented (Nilson, 2010).

Posing questions offers a way to introduce breaks in a lecture. Typical lecture classes do not always give students an opportunity to ask or answer questions. Some professors may believe that they allow for questioning in the classroom by saying such things as any questions, which is frequently met with blank stares. Very few students are courageous enough to raise their hand for fear of looking dumb. Other professors pose questions in their lectures and either answer the questions themselves or wait very little time for an answer. Often they find the same students answering their questions. Yet, more than two thousand years ago, Socrates realized that people understand more by answering a question, than by being told an answer.

Today, research supports what Socrates knew. Students must be placed in situations where they have to think in order to learn to think. Since questions demand an active mental response, they cause students to think (Bligh, 2000). Questions are therefore, one of the most powerful tools instructors can use to promote successful student performance and create an active learning environment that can even increase learning by 150% or more (Thalheimer, 2003). In discussing the importance of questions, McCabe explains that the most important value of questions is that they motivate students to learn. If used well, students will eventually ask themselves the questions they need to in order to learn. It is up to the instructor to teach students how to ask questions and guide them in the process (McCabe, 2006). Even though some only think of questions when creating exams, questions have value in the lecture. The most important use of questions is not just for tests or exams, but as a powerful tool to improve learning (Thalheimer, 2003). It is therefore important to ask questions of our students, but equally important is requiring the students to answer the questions. Research suggests that learning will not take place unless a student cognitively processes a question and participates in answering it (Guthrie & Carlin, 2004).

Clickers in the Classroom

The use of a clicker system has proven to be a relatively easy and efficient way to introduce an active learning component into a lecture class. Clicker systems indicates have been implemented in many universities and diverse courses including astronomy, engineering, mathematics, physics, accounting and economics courses. This technology is being used to improve student learning by creating classrooms that are more interactive. The use of these systems encourages communication, implements questioning and facilitates peer interaction, discussion, and instruction.

It has been shown with thousands of students from elementary to post graduate level in hundreds of classes that when students are actively involved in class they realize that their thoughts and opinions are important. This realization leads to students who come to class more prepared and willing to participate, think more in class, understand the concepts better and enjoy class more (Better, 2012). The literature also demonstrates the effectiveness of clicker systems in student engagement and learning.

Guthrie and Carlin (2004) investigated the students' perceptions about the use of clickers in the classroom. The authors developed five research questions for their study which focused on whether students believed that clickers had value in the classroom, whether they would participate more using clickers, whether they would feel they learned more with clickers, whether they thought the clickers were 'worth it' to their learning if they had to buy them or rent them, and whether they would prefer taking courses that used clickers over courses taught with traditional methods. They hypothesized that students would feel that they learned more with clickers, would participate more with them, would prefer them in classes, and would believe that the benefits to the classroom experience would outweigh the cost of the clickers. In order to investigate the hypotheses, the researchers designed a questionnaire, and administered it in two classes that used clickers one where clicker questions were interspersed in the lecture, and one where clicker questions were asked at the end of the lecture.

The authors found that their hypothesis that students would feel they learned more was only moderately supported because while forty percent of the students in the class where questions were interspersed felt they learned more, only eight percent felt they learned more in the class where questions were asked at the end. Their hypothesis on participation was supported, with seventy-one percent of the students saying they participated more with the clicker questions interspersed in the class, and forty-two percent saying they participated more in the class with clicker questions at the end. The authors said that their hypotheses on preference for a clicker class and cost vs. benefits of clickers were not supported. The authors concluded their study by saying that they believed that clickers had much potential for the classroom, and that with more exposure to them, students' perceptions would become even more positive.

Martyn (2007) investigated the use of clickers in students' active learning in the classroom. The purpose of the study was to look at students' participation and engagement with their learning through the use of clickers, as well as their perceptions of their learning in a clicker environment versus a traditional environment. The article discussed the research on the benefits of active learning and the use of clickers to employ the active learning process. According to (Martyn, 2007), clickers address three principles of good practice in undergraduate education actively engaging students throughout the entire class, gauging students understanding of the material, and providing feedback to the students about their learning.

In order to assess the effectiveness of the clickers, the author compared two classes, one where clickers were used and one without clickers. The same material was presented in both classes, both classes were given a pre-test and a post-test, and scores for the two groups were compared. There was no statistical difference in the test results between the two classes. Both classes were also given a survey with questions related to their degree of participation in the class and enjoyment of participating in the class. There was also no statistical difference between the classes in the survey results, but the author noted that the mean scores on all participation questions were higher in the class that used clickers. Although not born out statistically, the author concluded that students did enjoy using the clickers and perceived that they had value for their learning experience. The author also noted that with practice, an instructor's use of and incorporation of clickers into a class would improve and thus potentially have a stronger impact on student learning in the classroom (Martyn, 2007).


As stated earlier, the purpose of this study is to explain the use of interactive questions in online classes. The study contributes to education theory by analyzing the way students learn and illustrating how technology can support and enhance that learning in an online environment. The study provides a method for the development of interactive questions in narrated lectures that are included as course materials in online classes. The introduction of interactive questioning in online classes presents a way to strengthen the theory of using active learning to engage students.

Online Learning

Just as traditional passive lectures cause students to lose attention; passive online lectures also cause students to become distracted. The lectures deliver content, but if designed correctly can work with the other components of the course to help students achieve the learning outcomes. In his early article on distributed learning, Dede (1997) discussed emerging formats for distance education and attempted to show that these new methods of instruction were much more powerful for student learning than what he called the traditional learning by listening and teaching by telling model of in-class lecture based instruction. (Dede, 1997) He defined distributed learning as collaborative learning across campuses, homes, and offices (Dede, 1997). He advocated for whatever virtual environments that technology could produce as mediums to hold the information necessary for instruction, because these environments are more flexible and can adapt to the learner's needs much better than the traditional classroom. The author made bold predictions about where education would be in the 21st century, some of which are true, others of which are still in process.

For example, the author predicted that there would be tremendous change in higher education in the first years of the new millennium, and that is certainly true. But, the author said that face-to-face education would be gone in ten years. That is far from true. In his advocacy for the use of technology to revolutionize education in learning, the author made valid points, two of which bear repeating: 1) in order for distributed learning to work, the technical and human infrastructure must be present to support it; and, 2) those in power must be educated to understand all of the benefits that technology can bring to teaching and learning so that they will back it with all of their available resources.

The premise of the 2008 book by Bonk and Zhang was that the explosion in popularity of online education coupled with poor strategic planning and inadequate training of those providing the online education has created an environment which begs for models and frameworks to address the complexity of learners and learning environments that now exist. To address the need, the authors presented their own model designed to improve the online learning process, and explained how it can be used to meet the needs of learners in the best ways possible to empower the learners and maximize their learning experience. The authors called their model the R2D2 model--Read, Reflect, Display and Do. The goal of using the model for educators is to use appropriate technology for learning activities to create effective online education for the diverse groups of student learning styles, including visual, auditory, observational, and kinesthetic learners. Their model is intended to help those designing online courses to plan, design, and deliver those courses through a four phase process of reading, reflecting, displaying and doing. Through their presentation of their model in each of the chapters of the book, the authors explained the trends in technology, how those trends are relevant for online learning, gave examples of instructional strategies and pedagogical techniques related to specific aspects of the model, and presented many examples of tools, resources and activities that can be used to create effective online classes. They also showed how to integrate all four phases of their model to create effective online learning environments.

In their extensive report of online learning, Means, Toyama, Bakia, & Jones (2010), stated that online learning is one of the fastest growing trends in technology and education, so it is important to study online classes to determine how students are learning in online vs. traditional classes. While the report studied K-12 education in the U.S., it offered important considerations for online education at the postsecondary level as well. The meta-analysis discussed in the report analyzed more than one thousand empirical studies of online learning published between 1996 and 2008. The study did include reports of blended learning situations that combined online and face-to-face instruction in its analysis. The analysis found that despite the vast number of publications on online learning, there were only a small number of rigorous studies that contrasted online and face-to-face learning conditions, but that those studies showed that students in online learning performed modestly better than those receiving traditional classroom instruction. The conclusion of the study was that more empirical research comparing traditional to online learning is necessary in order to make definitive conclusions that online learning is better for student outcomes.

Interactivity in Online Classes

When considering online learning, including interactivity allows one to make the case that the online experience is as good as, if not better than a traditional face-to-face learning experience (Wagner, 1997). Interaction can take the form of interaction between the student and the instructor, between students and other students, and between the student and the course content (Moursund, 2003). The online lecture represents one opportunity to introduce interactivity into the course content; however, when creating online lectures, copying and pasting lecture notes into a Web page only provides the material - it does not give the students the engagement and interactive communication they would have in a traditional classroom (Steinbronn & Merideth, 2005). Simply recording or videotaping an instructor in a regular classroom setting is not ideal (Venable, 2011). To help students become actively engaged in an online lecture, the instructor should act not as a sage on the stage, but as a guide on the side (Moursund, 2003). Even though the instructor acts as a facilitator in an online course, this does not mean that the instructor no longer acts as the content expert. The instructor must be completely knowledgeable in the subject in order to guide students in acquiring and understanding that subject (Palloff & Pratt, 2003). To provide the necessary content knowledge, instructors should create interactive online lectures. Interactive online lectures will encourage active participation and promote intrinsic motivation in learners by highlighting the relevancy that new information may have (Wagner, 1997).

Questions in Online Lectures

The goal of an interactive lecture is to engage students by finding ways for them to interact with the content. These interactive lectures include sections of lecture only and sections where interaction by students is required (Macdonald & Teede, 2012). Interactive online lectures engage students in the presentation of new material. Incorporating questions into the lecture is one method to make the lecture interactive. The student is presented with a question on the material. If the student answers correctly, an explanation of the answer is given, and the student proceeds with the lecture. If the student answers incorrectly, an explanation of why the choice is incorrect is provided, and the student can then be given another try, presented with a different question, or directed to another point in the lecture. The questions are there to ensure that the students engage with the lecture and not just click through the slides (Scott, 2006).

In exploring ways to incorporate the benefits of interactivity and questioning in online lectures, this study examined different technologies and found that the use of Adobe Presenter (Creating, 2012) was an inexpensive, user-friendly tool for creating narrated lectures with questions. Adobe Presenter is an add-in for Microsoft Power Point. When the Adobe Presenter add-in is downloaded, a tab saying Adobe Presenter will be included on the Power Point menu. The add-in allows for the importation of audio, video and Flash files, the recording of narration on the Power Point slides, the capture video with a webcam, the editing of the video, and a Quiz Manager function that is used to insert questions. The instructor may use the default quiz structure or create multiple quizzes and questions. The following steps illustrate the method proposed by the study to incorporate interactive questions in a narrated lecture for an online class.

Step 1: Create (or use an existing) Power Point presentation for the content material. If using an existing Power Point from a traditional lecture class of sixty to ninety minutes, the Power Point should be divided into shorter presentations, so that when they are narrated, the actual narration would be around ten minutes per presentation. Dividing the material into short sections corresponds to Mayer's segmenting principle which says that students learn better when the lesson is presented in segments that are learner-paced instead of a continuous unit (Mayer, 2005).

Step 2: Narrate the Power Point presentation by using the Record feature of Adobe Presenter. The instructor can narrate each slide individually; stopping and starting as needed, or narrate all of the slides at once, advancing through the slides while speaking the narration. The instructor can write a script to follow for the narration, or 'add-lib' the narration, as if he or she were speaking in the classroom.

Step 3: Incorporate questions into the presentation through the use of the Quiz Manager in Adobe Presenter. This can be done using the existing default quiz structure or by creating a new quiz. When creating a new quiz, the instructor can chose among the many options in the Quiz Settings and the Pass or Fail scoring Options.

Step 4: Add question feedback messages for both correct and incorrect answers. Feedback is an important component of the interactive questioning so that students will understand why they got a question correct, or why they got it wrong. It also helps to personalize the online lecture and encourage students to think about what they are learning.

Step 5: Add the branching options for the question. This is the point at which the instructor can decide whether the student can move forward with the lecture if the question is answered correctly, or where in the lecture the student should be directed if the question is answered incorrectly. The student can be directed to previous slides to review the material again so that he or she will have a better chance to answer to question correctly as they come to it again, or can be directed to another question to test their comprehension of the material.

Step 6: After selecting the various options for the question, the instructor then creates the question and answer choices as appropriate. Questions can be multiple choice, true/false, fill-inthe-blank, short answer, matching, or a Likert scale. To improved student learning, the instructor should use conceptual questions as these will help students realize their misconceptions right away instead of later when they are taking a test. According to extensive research conducted over a fifteen year period, multiple choice questions can be used to test concepts and promote conceptual understanding (Duncan, 2005).

Step 7: After creating the question, the instructor has the option to also create feedback for each individual answer choice of the question. This feedback can even be recorded by the instructor to give detailed information on why each choice was correct or incorrect. This furthers the opportunity for student understanding of a concept. This also allows for additional personalization of the lecture and can even include an audio of applause for the correct choice to provided positive reinforcement to the student.

This process for the creation of an interactive question is repeated as often as the instructor feels is necessary to keep the student engaged with the lecture and to help them stay on track with the understanding of the material in the lecture, recognize when they need to obtain additional information or review to better understand the material, and also to comprehend when they have achieved a mastery of the material. Thus, interactive questions in a narrated lecture provide interaction, and that interaction makes a quality learning experience possible (Wagner, 1997).


With the explosion in online learning, new methodologies are necessary to support the new learning environment faced by students and instructors alike. Since learners must take on more responsibility for understanding the material in an online class where the instructor is not present with them all the time, it is up to the instructor to help the students learn. Interactivity provides the opportunity for active involvement with the instructor (Palloff & Pratt, 1999). Using interactive questions in an online lecture is a means to give feedback to both students and the instructor on what the students are learning. Instructors can then use that feedback as valuable information to evaluate specific aspects of the course design and structure, to revise the course and then analyze the impact of those changes (Brew, 2008).

Based on the method developed in this study for the creation and use of interactive questions in online classes, future studies could be conducted to provide empirical evidence of the theoretical assertions proposed here that active learning increases student retention and understanding of the material. According to Nandi, Hamilton and Harland (2012), although there is now more focus on better uses of technology to support online learning, the way online interaction and participation can be designed has yet to be adequately investigated. To test the benefits of this online questioning component in online classes, the authors are currently designing a survey to be completed by students in their online classes. The results of this survey will be evaluated to determine the effectiveness of this interactive, online questioning method discussed in this study. The authors predict that the results of the survey will confirm that by producing these narrated presentations with the interactivity of questions and answers, student engagement in online classes will be greatly enhanced.


It is clear that interaction is critical to helping today's active students learn. Interspersing questions in a classroom lecture is a proven way to incorporate interaction and increase student understanding. Clicker systems have earned a well deserved place in the university classroom, as they enhance student engagement and promote interactive learning. They allow for immediate two-way conversation between the professor and the students and facilitate questioning in the classroom. They force students to actually answer the questions that are posed - essential for lasting learning to take place. They appeal to our new generation of learners who expect to be actively engaged in the classroom, and they make the learning process exciting.

Since the importance of questioning in the classroom is well documented, it must also be extended to online classes as well. Online classes are a booming facet of university programs. Insuring student learning is essential as more and more students participate in online classes. The purpose of this study was to examine the way in which interactive questioning can be achieved in the online environment and propose a method of creating interactive narrated lectures for online classes. Because of its important role in increasing learning, interactive questioning should be an integral part of online classes, and using the method developed in this study is one way to ensure that interactivity will be achieved.


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About the Authors:

Sheryl S. Grosso received her M.A. in Economics from Virginia State University. She is the Associate Director of Distributed Learning at the University of South Carolina Center for Teaching Excellence and an Instructor at the University of South Carolina Sumter.

Teresa L. Smith received her Ph.D. in Business Management from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. She is the Julian T. Buxton Professor of Business Administration at the University of South Carolina Sumter.

Jean-Luc E. Grosso received his Ph.D. in International Economics and International Business from the University of South Carolina Columbia. He is the McDavid Professor of Business Administration at the University of South Carolina Sumter. Together, the authors' research focuses on the impact of technology on education and student learning.

Sheryl S. Grosso

Teresa L. Smith

Jean-Luc E. Grosso

University of South Carolina Sumter
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Author:Grosso, Sheryl S.; Smith, Teresa L.; Grosso, Jean-Luc E.
Publication:International Journal of Education Research (IJER)
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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