Understoodit Helps Confused Students in the Classroom

One of the things professors and instructors often tell students at the beginning of a class is to just raise their hand and ask questions should they become confused at any time. The problem is that despite such well-intentioned advice, it’s very rare that students actually take up their teacher’s suggestion and actually do that. Which is why Toronto-based startup Understoodit, founded by Liam Kaufman and launched in beta this week, intends to make it easier for teachers and students to communicate basic information via a persistent back-channel during lectures and classes.

Understoodit’s name is highly descriptive of what it does; basically, it’s a device-agnostic web app that can run in a browser on a student’s computer, smartphone or tablet device, allowing them to quickly and easily register confusion or understanding with a single click. That information is then relayed to a real-time dashboard that the lecturer or instructor can monitor to make sure the class is following along. The idea has obvious benefits: improve monitoring of classroom understanding, and improve the quality of lectures and avoid having to retread the same ground repeatedly to get concepts across.

Kaufman told BetaKit in an interview that the idea for Understoodit came from a lengthy academic career, during which he witnessed the same problems occurring again and again in classroom settings. After nearly 10 years in school doing a degree in psychology, graduate school and also another degree in computer science, Kaufman noticed one thing in particular that was consistently problematic.

“One of the things I noticed is that in really large classes, there’s not a lot of interaction between students and teachers,” he said. “The teacher can’t really gauge if the class understands until the mid-term, or when they’re evaluated by the students, and by that time it’s really too late.”

Kaufman thought there should be a way to provide real-time feedback when it’s needed most – at the moment confusion occurs, which would help both students and teachers, by improving knowledge retention and helping instructors learn about potential problems or deficiencies in their lectures and teaching styles as they occur, instead of via general, vague feedback and half-remembered anecdotes collected on end-of-term course evaluation forms.

It’s a problem others have approached in the past, including via hardware devices called “clickers” that can be used in a variety of different in-class activities, including multiple choice quizzes and basic understanding polls. But Kaufman’s solution has a couple of advantages over that system: First, it works with the hardware students are already likely to have, including smartphones, laptops and tablets. Second, since it requires just a JavaScript software piece (and one that doesn’t even require on-device installation, just a browser connected to the university Wi-Fi network) instead of both software and hardware, it’s cheaper to implement, and students won’t necessarily be charged directly for its use as is often the case with clickers.

The plan for Kaufman is to begin slowly, offering Understoodit with its basic understand/don’t understand functionality to schools at first. He’s been testing the service with a few entry-level university computer science courses with around 250 students, and received good feedback from both teachers and students. The tool has built-in safeguards against abuse, including a timer to prevent students from just repeatedly hitting one button or the other, and Kaufman spent a lot of time tweaking the decay curve on registered clicks so that instructors have an easier time identifying when a moment of confusion has passed and what material it applied to specifically.

Eventually, Kaufman sees the tool expanding its functionality and becoming a lot more sophisticated, and even competing head-on with clicker hardware for in-class quizzes and other applications. Once, access to connected devices might have been a barrier standing in the way of Understoodit’s browser-based approach, but now that those are ubiquitous in classrooms, bigger challenges involve convincing professors of its value (and making sure they don’t see it as yet another way of monitoring their efficacy), and making sure students use it as intended and don’t come up with ways to abuse the system.

Understoodit, which is currently bootstrapped by Kaufman, should however appeal to students and teachers alike because of its simplicity, and because it provides a way to speak to students on the devices they’re already using in the classroom, which is one way to make sure that channel doesn’t get used just for social networking and other distracting activities during lectures.

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