Wireless Interactivity for Student Assessment, Response and Discussion

Dr. Anton Riedl, Department of Physics, Computer Science and Engineering
Updated May 2007

In 2004 Christopher Newport University received an HP Technology for Teaching Grant to encourage the transformation of learning and teaching. Based on HP's wireless PDA technology (iPAQ h5550) we have created WISARD, a classroom response and collaboration system, which facilitates student participation and promotes communication between students and teachers in the classroom. Specifically, WISARD enables instructors to give surveys and quizzes in a timely, non-biased fashion, thus, making it possible to gauge student understanding of difficult concepts more accurately. As the results of the surveys and quizzes are available immediately and can easily be shared with the class, instructors and students have the chance to address existing difficulties and problems right away.


The WISARD project focuses on the combination of two key issues, which are essential for the learning process:
  1. accurate and prompt (formative) assessment of students' knowledge and understanding,
  2. active student participation and increased interaction among students and between students and faculty.
Formative assessment and instant feedback have proved invaluable in education. In order for an instructor to design lectures and course work and appropriately adjust the material throughout the semester, he or she needs to have an accurate picture of the students' knowledge and understanding. Furthermore, it is critical for students to be aware of what they know and, more importantly, what they do not know. Frequently students believe that they fully understand the material that was covered in class. However, when they have to apply the knowledge in homework assignments or tests, they realize that there understanding was incomplete. Unfortunately, this realization often comes too late, at a time when it has a negative effect on their grades.

Even though classes at Christopher Newport University are of small to moderate size (i.e., fewer than 50), it is still difficult to achieve timely and non-biased assessment and give students immediate feedback about their knowledge. The two traditional ways, giving tests and assignments on the one hand and asking questions in class on the other, do not provide an accurate picture. While tests, quizzes, and homework assignments give individual feedback for every student, they all take time to grade and, thus, cause delay between the time of assessment and the time the instructor can respond to potential problems. Questions asked in class, on the other hand, achieve timeliness, but the feedback obtained does not reflect the comprehension level of each student. Typically, only students who know the material well respond, while others avoid questions at all. Unfortunately, experience shows that many students belonging to the latter group, after hearing the answers, falsely believe that they could have given the correct answer, too (at least close enough). This false confidence is deceptive and ultimately counterproductive to the learning process. It is therefore essential to close the gap between the time of assessment and the provisioning of feedback.


The "WISARD-affected" courses - currently mostly science courses - have traditionally been taught in "lecture style". This means that the class material is often introduced on the black/whiteboard or presented by means of PowerPoint slides. Additionally, the material is reviewed and reinforced by discussing specific examples in class or by going over problems and their solutions. Although student participation is encouraged at all times and discussions are welcomed, it is often difficult to "reach" everyone of the students and to actively include them in the learning process. Assessment so far has almost exclusively been done through homework assignments, quizzes, and exams.

This is were WISARD comes in. WISARD strengthens the formative assessment component in the classroom by allowing, even requiring, all students to participate at the same time. Furthermore, by making the assessment process anonymous, the students' reluctance to participate is minimized. A great advantage of the system is the short turnaround time between assessment and feedback. The immediate feedback allows for a multi-stage process, where after sharing the results of each evaluation step with the class, the students are encouraged to discuss the outcome with their peers. This discussion can then be followed up with another round of assessment, ultimately leading to an intermingling of assessment and peer instruction (Mazur).

For more information on formative assessment and its benefits, check out following links:


The central components of the WISARD system are:
We employ JDH Technologies’ state-of-the-art collaboration software Web-4M and use it with HP’s wireless iPAQ Pocket PCs as user input devices for the students. Web-4M was adapted by JDH Technologies in cooperation with CNU to run on the Pocket PC operating system and to fit the small screen size.
Web-4M offers, among many other features, the possibility to post questions and collect answers. Each student is informed whether his or her answer was correct, and answer distributions can then be shared with the class. A very nice feature of Web-4M is also its white-board functionality, which allows students to draw and share simple graphs or figures.

Lately, we have also used eInstruction's Classroom Performance System (CPS) to collect answers. Compared to the iPAQ solution of WISARD, the CPS system is rather simple ("WISARD light") as it includes only 'clickers' with limited selection options. Nevertheless, the CPS system has proved itself to be very robust and, thus, conveniently employable in larger classes.

We have also employed immediate feedback using actual whiteboards for student problem solving. Although technology free, this has many of the same advantages: it allows the instructor to provide immediate feedback; it is low pressure and collaborative, sparks student-student and student-instructor conversation and allows students to view others' answers to the problem (but not anonymously).


The application of WISARD in the classroom provides a great means of actively involving students and drawing them into the learning process. At the same time it "forces" the instructor to give interactivity and formative assessment considerable thought during the preparation process.
While student interaction and formative assessment should, of course, be obvious and should not depend on the availability of WISARD, having a practical tool at hand makes it certainly easier. Several instructors admitted that they have often neglected in-class assessment due to lack of appropriate tools. They claim that by using the classroom response system they have gained a better understanding of what their students know and what they don't know. Furthermore, the positive response of their students and the increased interactivity has encouraged them to extend the use of the system and to plan further activities.


After having used classroom response systems now for several semesters in various courses, we are convinced that they have a very positive impact on student learning. Based on observations and student comments following positive effects become evident:
  • Students are very enthusiastic when participating in WISARD-based quizzes, showing less reluctance to deal with difficult topics. It makes even theoretic and "dry" material more enjoyable and accessible to students.
  • As their answers can be displayed immediately on the projector screen, students try harder to come up with the correct answers (even though the answers are submitted anonymously). If answers are wrong, they are more interested in finding out the correct answer.
  • The use of WISARD leads to an increased level of communication and cooperation among students. If allowed, they intensively discuss answers with their peers before submitting them.
  • The use of classroom response systems leads to an increased level of student participation.
    Example: In programming classes where students are asked to determine the output of a piece of code and to submit the solution via a classroom response system, the participation rate is almost always 100%. If the same in-class assignment is done without asking the students to submit their answers (but with the instructor walking through the room and looking at the solutions) it can be observed that a significant amount of students will not do the assignment.
  • In computer programming classes, student surveys indicate that, besides working on programming assignments, they learn more doing the collaborative, immediate feedback problem-solving than anything else in the course (e.g. reading the textbook, listening to lecture, etc).
  • Furthermore, surveys also indicate that students enjoy the Wisard-like activities more than anything else that they do in the course.
Since student interest and active interaction are core ingredients for successful learning, we believe that WISARD significantly improves the learning experience of most students.


Department of Physics, Computer Science and Engineering
Courses Impacted:
  • Introduction to Computer Science
  • Introduction to Programming I
  • Data and File Structures
  • Applications of Computer Technology in the Classroom
  • Elementary Physics
  • Intermediate Physics
  • Natural Science
  • Elementary Statistics
  • First-Year Seminar
  • General Chemistry
  • Introduction Italian

Students Impacted: about 400

Participating Faculty:


In order to further promote the use of WISARD, we are planning to extend its capabilities through the addition of tablet PCs. The new system will be even more versatile, allowing professors and students to perform new types of in-class activities. WISARD TX will support professional software, interactive lectures, visualization, and shared displays and, thus, will truly transform any classroom into an interactive and collaborative learning environment.


Anton Riedl (riedl at pcs dot cnu dot edu)
Dave Doughty (doughty at pcs dot cnu dot edu )