Why Socrative is worthy of space on your smartphone and in your classroom

A student using smart technology in the classroom

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Many chemistry students hold certain deep-rooted misconceptions which present an obstacle to developing a concrete understanding of key concepts that form the foundations of chemistry. Simply identifying and addressing these misconceptions directly does not always work: teachers need to find innovative ways of challenging and rectifying them.

As most learners now have access to a smartphone, there is a drive to make use of this technology to improve learners’ engagement, participation, performance, understanding and emotional experiences. Student response systems (SRS) are familiar tools in higher education, and studies suggest they generally result in an improvement in engagement.1–4 For the teacher, too, such tools can provide real-time feedback to help them adapt teaching appropriately, both in the immediate and long term.

Introducing Socrative

Socrative is a freely-available interactive app learners use on their own mobile devices during lessons.5 Teachers can prepare multiple choice, true/false or short answer quiz questions in advance, or generate a debate based on a question posed during a lesson. Learners can then get immediate feedback to check their understanding. Socrative records responses individually so the teacher can analyse them after the session, but they can also be anonymised for group projection, allowing in-class discussions.

Using Socrative

I have been using the app with foundation year chemistry students at the University of Nottingham, particularly to gauge their perceptions of topics that have traditionally been found difficult or have associated misconceptions that are difficult to correct, such as structure and bonding.

First, I used Socrative as a tool for formative assessment, creating a true/false quiz based on resources developed by Keith Taber at the University of Cambridge to discover what the students had already learned about ionisation energy and ionic bonding.6 Learners received immediate feedback via the app after each question, which gave them the opportunity to reflect there and then on their own understanding.

The group then discussed the anonymised responses. This gave them a second form of feedback as well as the opportunity to ask questions about anything they did not understand. A second quiz followed, using different examples, to assess whether there had been any improvement in learners’ understanding as a result.

When they had finished, I asked the group whether they felt using the tool had been beneficial.

Initial impressions

Initial analysis provides little evidence that having a tool that provides immediate formative feedback improved attainment. However, it does seem to have improved learner engagement, with just under 2/3 of the cohort agreeing and over 1/3 strongly agreeing that ‘Using the SRS improved my engagement with the topic material’. Surprisingly, 85% of the group actually thought that using Socrative improved their understanding, even though 45% of the group achieved less in the second assessment. But perhaps most importantly, 95% responded positively to ‘The SRS activities helped me identify areas of confusion/misunderstanding that I need to revisit’ and 81% were encouraged to revisit the topic.

Although using Socrative does not seem to have improved learner achievement, it does raise the question of whether there are more effective ways of teaching these topics. Reflecting on the findings from using Socrative and in light of the available literature,6–12 I have changed the teaching sequence for structure and bonding on the foundation course away from the traditional sequence of ionic bonding followed by covalent and then polar covalent and intermolecular forces; I will explore the impacts of this on the new cohort of learners this year.

Other uses for Socrative

Besides formative assessment, I have also used the teacher-paced element of the software, which means I can set problems for the class and analyse the responses in real time. This provides a way of addressing immediately with the whole group those questions that learners may be reluctant to ask as individuals. High levels of engagement have ensued.

However, overuse of any tool can become tedious, and some learners may start to disengage. Although many studies of the impact of SRS have demonstrated a positive impact on learner engagement, learner perceptions on learning benefits can vary, depending on how the SRS is used (summative assessment tends to elicit a negative response)1–4 – not forgetting that learners’ perceptions tend to be shaped not only by the design of the assessment and quality of feedback, but also by the pedagogical training of the teacher.2

Beverley Allan in an assistant professor on the science foundation course at the University of Nottingham, UK