As faculty consider which technology tools to try this school year, they may be interested to know there is now one available that helps their students speak up in class. AskClass is a simple teaching tool that gets students talking and lets professors know who to call on next. Part AI and part behavioral science, AskClass may appear rudimentary, but founders hope that it can help higher education address new concerns about academic disengagement and social anxiety among Gen Z students.
Damon Moon, a management consultant turned adjunct business professor at San Jose State University, created AskClass with a development partner. He uses the tool in all his classes and has made it available as a commercial product for professors across the country. Moon said the absence of normal conversation caused by students’ preoccupation with phones and social media, coupled with the emotional side-effects of the pandemic, served as motivation to create a tool that would bring robust conversation back into the classroom.
“Today’s students can go for hours without talking and the first thing they’ll likely ask is, ‘Do you have a charger?’” Moon joked, though he believes the ramifications of this are serious from both a teaching and a mental health perspective.
He described the tool as a combination of gamification, data analytics, and a little bit of nudging. The formula is simple and straightforward. When students enter class, they are met with classical piano music and an “icebreaker” question projected on the AskClass screen, often side-by-side with class content. The question could be anything from “If you have $100 to donate, where would you give it and why?” to “What is your favorite movie?” Students are asked to discuss their answers with their classmates, as music continues in the background. Those that share with the entire class are given points that are tallied in real time on the roster on the AskClass screen which displays all of the students’ first and last names.
The point system continues throughout the lecture with many opportunities for students to speak up and get credit. Professors are encouraged to create class experiences that naturally lead to discussion, like team projects that require a “report out,” providing another chance at points. A timer helps guide the more introverted students, letting them know there’s a start and finish to their efforts. Professors, acting more like coaches, yell motivational instructions like “Lucas, you have two minutes to recap the discussion. Go!”
An advantage for faculty, particularly those teaching in large lecture halls, is that they can see who has not participated and can welcome them into the conversation. Another tactic, the Random Person Selector, calls on students indiscriminately, removing any perception of bias on the professor’s part.
“Raising your hand can be really uncomfortable for some students, particularly those from Eastern Asian countries where it is contrary to our culture,” said Moon, who is from Korea. “But at the same time, being asked to participate, or having your name randomly come up on the screen, can be the onramp many students need to join the conversation.”
Outcome data from Moon’s classes show that 96% of students said they are more comfortable speaking up in class; and 95% of students said they had better team dynamics compared to other classes. Additionally, 98% of students made a new friend as a result of AskClass.
“AskClass is pretty much your best friend starting the conversation for you in a group of kids,” said Diamon, a senior at San Jose State who is originally from East Africa. “And the points are awesome,” he said.
Moon said the point system is a reinforcing mechanism that works well with students in direct and subtle ways. Students are familiar with “rewards” programs, like those at Starbucks or their credit cards, and are comfortable competing in digital games. For classes where professors offer participation credit toward grades, as Moon does, it is a significant motivator.
“I am a very competitive person, so for me to be able to see in real time the points I get, made me really want to participate every single day,” said Lily, a student at San Jose State. “It makes participation fun; It’s like a game.”
Bob DuBois, PhD, known as ‘Dr. Bob,” is associate director of undergraduate studies and a senior lecturer in the psychology department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He said any way to get students talking in class was of interest to him as a professor. When he heard about AskClass from a podcast featuring Moon, he decided to pilot it in his classroom. He now says it has played a big role in building community in his class.
“It just changed the entire dynamic,” he said. “What was once the same three or four students dominating the discussion suddenly became everybody wanting to join in because they could see that they were getting credit for that and watching their points go up.”
DuBois believes students learn more as a result, particularly first-generation students (of which he was one), who often lack the confidence to take risks within the classroom. He also sees AskClass as a way for busy students to make friends in a place where they spend so much of their time. “I see AskClass as kind of a scaffolding for building relationships, which is incredibly important on modern campuses where students are so busy that they are not prioritizing making friends.”
Building relationships that lead to better mental health is an intended benefit of AskClass and one that Moon talks about in his sales pitch. Keith, a recent San Jose State graduate who met his girlfriend through Moon’s class said, “Just being able to put yourself out there in a low stakes environment, especially a learning environment, is so good for your mental wellbeing.”
Nareg, a former student in Moon’s class, said AskClass creates an environment where people can freely share what’s going on in their lives. “I think it really creates a sense of belonging for students of any kind of background. Anyone can come into engagement and find something to talk about, something they have in common with the person next to them. And then when the professor ties it all together, it creates a holistic environment where everyone has a sense of belonging.”
For Julia, who is from Brazil, the five-minute icebreaker that gets students talking doubles as a stress reliever when moving from one content-rich class to the next. But what she appreciates most about AskClass is the way it gives students agency in the classroom.
“You no longer feel like a spectator,” she said. “You’re not just sitting there, getting the information and storing it in your brain. Instead, you feel a part of everything.”
AskClass is now being used by 700 professors at 130 institutions across the country, and Moon is eager for it to expand even more. The tech entrepreneur and business professor said generating a profit from the relatively modest licensing fee is not his motivation, and it is unclear if his technology-based engagement tool is the real differentiator in the satisfaction his students so eagerly reported. Is it good technology or just good teaching?
Dr. Bob said, “AskClass makes the process of asking questions and soliciting answers structured in a way that we don’t forget how important that is.”