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Dalhousie professor Matthew Numer leverages anonymity to get students to discuss sensitive issues

Atlantic Canada’s largest university, Dalhousie, is a leader in marine sciences and oceanographic research—fitting, as the campus, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, sits on the Atlantic coastline. But the school offers a wide range of courses, including “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them” (a history course) and “The Good Life” (which explores western philosophy). In the School of Health and Human Performance, Matthew Numer teaches Human Sexuality to an undergraduate class of 450. The course covers biological, cultural, ethical, historical, psychological, religious and semantic aspects of sex, and ventures into territory that may be uncomfortable for some students.

Numer uses the Top Hat classroom engagement app in these classes so students can anonymously answer multiple choice or true/false questions via the app on their own personal devices, and to contribute to forum discussions. In a class where participation and classroom interactivity make up 20 percent of the final grade, student engagement is a high priority. By using Top Hat, students can examine sensitive issues without having to speak out in front of hundreds of peers.

Numer and former teaching assistant Rebecca Spencer co-authored an article in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Technologies in Learning based on their study of whether the student experience changed by using devices, and their relation to student engagement with the course material. Using survey data collected across three semesters and 1,100 students, they found BYOD succeeded in promoting undergraduate engagement, including by making students more comfortable with the course material. “In a class about human sexuality, with 450 students, it’s both logistically challenging and sensitive to allow students to be able to take part and contribute their views,” says Spencer. “They frequently noted this as a benefit during the study.”

One undergraduate interviewed in a post-course focus group said: “I think it makes people more comfortable to be able to answer freely without having to raise their hand.” Another added: “I thought this was the most engaging course I have ever been in…the environment of the class allowed for students to be open about their opinions.”

And when students can engage with the class and each other, their analysis of the subject improves. “An opportunity to engage at a deeper level enables critical thinking,” says Dr. Numer. “Together with all the measurements we did, it was evident that students increased critical thinking skills through Top Hat and the course more broadly.”