CSU: Thinking outside the box

Two young women sitting in group during class
Tara Fahmie

Tara Fahmie, an associate professor in the department of Psychology and director of the Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis at California State University, Northridge, first adopted audience response nearly six years ago.

Initially, TurningPoint was simply a way to encourage student attendance, timeliness and participation with exercises like a one-question daily reading quiz at the beginning of class and multiple-choice questions throughout lectures for both undergraduate and graduate classes, which range in size from 30 to 230 students.

“When I got to CSUN I knew I wanted to adopt some kind of active responder system because my field, behavior analysis, has a lot of research in this area and it’s shown to be so effective,” she said. “It makes sure they’re on time…and it increases the amount of reading that they do, and the comprehension of that reading as well.”

Of course, learning about psychological principles was great, but wouldn’t experiencing them first-hand be even better? While thinking this through, she quickly realized that TurningPoint had the potential for so much more.

Positive and negative reinforcement

In one in-class exercise, Fahmie uses TurningPoint to demonstrate the commonly known, although frequently misunderstood, concepts of positive and negative reinforcement. Students are told to randomly select a response from A through D. For positive reinforcement, when the TurningPoint graph line starts increasing for the letter she randomly chose as the preferred one, she will play music that they enjoy as encouragement.

“The funny thing about the demonstration is that it takes them a while to get it,” she said. “Once they get it, they get really excited, and they are jamming out to the music and they are all pressing C over and over to keep the music going.“

In a separate exercise on negative reinforcement, she blasts white noise whenever any graph line other than the preferred one increases to achieve the same effect. This not only elicits a strong emotional response while they “frantically” try to guess the correct response, but also opens up a discussion about the side effects of this method.

If everybody in this college adopted [TurningPoint], I think it would meet one of the huge pushes for student success in the CSU system-wide.

“As therapy, we don’t like to use negative reinforcement as much as positive reinforcement. They all kind of realize, because they had just gone through it, how much better it felt to be trying to get a good thing as opposed to trying to escape a bad thing.”

Such intense experiences also drive home a point that often causes confusion for students.

“They sometimes confuse negative reinforcement and this other term, punishment,” she said. “It helps them remember the distinction that, in both of these cases [positive and negative reinforcement], you are actually trying to increase a behavior. [Students] actively engaging in more and more behavior helps them remember that key distinction.”

College students using phones during lecture

Field experience

Another lesson that TurningPoint makes possible is an exercise where students get experience doing the kind of work that Fahmie and other behavior therapists actually do in the field.

Fahmie often observes children who have severe behavioral problems. As a part of this process, she does an assessment that tracks the child’s behaviors and environment in order to draw conclusions as to what is happening and what interventions should be made. This is something that she wanted her students to experience, but the data programs used to measure her observations are prohibitively expensive for even one student to use, much less 230.

Rather than be deterred, she decided to have students watch videos and use their clickers to record the data.

“I’ve assigned different coding scales to the keys of the clicker, so they are actively collecting data on their clickers and they’re practicing what it is like to be a behavior analyst,” she said. “They all learn something that helps them with their life, even if they are not going to go on to be a behavior therapist after this.”

Female therapist listening to child talk during session

Student success

Given everything that TurningPoint has allowed her to do, Fahmie has become an evangelist for its use on campus. She is always encouraging other instructors to give it a try, and has even put together a PowerPoint that summarizes all of the benefits she has seen over the years.

Included in her presentation are rates of attendance and participation, and the results are impressive. In one class of 231 students, they completed 88.9 percent of the 23 daily quizzes. Further, they earned 88.5 percent of the available 4,150 participation points available by answering interactive questions during lessons.

“If everybody in this college adopted [TurningPoint], I think it would meet one of the huge pushes for student success in the CSU system-wide,” she said. “The greatest predictor of on-time graduation is attendance, and this is one thing that almost guarantees attendance.”

Beyond the attendance statistics, Fahmie is grateful that TurningPoint helps her add a personal touch to even her largest classes in a way that wouldn’t be possible without the clickers.

“The students really like how personal I make the class feel even though it’s large,” she said. “I will reach out to a student who [for example] hasn’t shown up in three classes and say, ‘Hey, I noticed you are absent. Are you OK?’…They respond very, very well to that. They’re like, ‘Wow, you really care about us. You’re the first professor to ever reach out to me when I have been struggling.’”