Top Hat: Learning and Teaching with Audience Response Technology

What Is Audience Response Technology?

In the past, audience response technology was represented by “clickers”, remote proprietary devices used by students to transmit responses to interactive questions, prompted by the instructor. With the advent of technology, smart devices took over the role of clickers.

Top Hat: An Interactive Teaching and Learning Platform

Top Hat, is an interactive, cloud-based teaching and learning platform that offers a number of benefits for Iowa State University instructors and students. For instructors, Top Hat opens up new technology-based pedagogical methods for classroom use. For students, it eliminates the need for clickers – the remote control-style response devices – and offers the flexibility of participation through computers, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Top Hat was piloted at ISU during the 2015-2016 academic year and as of fall 2016 will be the only classroom response technology supported by ISU IT and CELT.

Major Features in Top Hat

Typically, audience response technology functions to present interactive questions and receive instant student feedback that can also be automatically graded for performance and participation.

Top Hat allows six question-types:

  1. Multiple choice
  2. Word answer
  3. Numeric answer
  4. Sorting problems
  5. Matching problems
  6. Click on target

Top Hat also offers a comprehensive way for tracking student engagement and participation and other pedagogical opportunities to enrich learning, such as creating discussion threads and interactive content pages, sharing, presenting and annotating uploaded instructional materials.

Informing your students about Top Hat

You must inform the University BookStore of using Top Hat in your course, whether you ask your students to pay for a subscription or enroll them in a free Top Hat environment. Section of the Faculty Handbook states that the bookstores ought to be provided with a list of any and all required and/or recommended course materials per the federal Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008. This will allow you to be transparent as to what your students should expect prior to enrolling in your course. Read the Iowa State Faculty Handbook Section (PDF).

Authoring Content in Top Hat

If you opt to author content in Top Hat including slides, question packs, articles, course packs and more AND expect to be compensated by Top Hat as part of the Top Hat’s Content Marketplace effort, to understand how the royalties should be allocated please consult the Iowa State Faculty Handbook Section (PDF). When in doubt, please contact the Iowa State University Bookstore representatives via email Heather Dean or John Wierson.

Get Started

Visit the Top Hat: Overview website from IT Services for technical information.

For ideas on how to use Top Hat contact CELT by emailing Instructors: Request Instructional Support for Top Hat

Teaching by Asking Meaningful Questions

Questions have been long used as an effective technique for teaching and learning as in the Socratic Method where asking and answering is a critical part of the enlightening argumentative dialogue.

Asking interactive questions serves a dual purpose in the classroom:  firstly, it encourages each student to engage and secondly, it paints a broad picture of learning occurring in the classroom and allows for the appropriate modification of the instruction.

Student responses can be tracked or remain anonymous: the latter method is used to ease social anxiety and create space for honest responses.

At the Start of Class

At the beginning of the class time student feedback is used for setting up a stage for new learning. Ask questions that:

  • Assess student prior knowledge
  • Surface misconceptions
  • Encourage student predictions
  • Motivate learning
  • Help to connect previous knowledge with new concepts

During Class

Feedback during learning allows to gauge what students understand and what they struggle to embrace. Ask questions that:

  • Check understanding and retention
  • Create practice opportunities
  • Facilitate group dynamics, collaboration and competition
  • Explain real world applications
  • Probe into student critical thinking

After Class

At the end of instruction feedback is useful for summing up, making connections and evaluating teaching. Ask questions that:

  • Facilitate review and summarization
  • Explain connections between concepts
  • Help to demonstrate performance
  • Assess the quality of learning activities and instruction

Using Bloom’s Taxonomy to Enhance Questions

Audience response technology can facilitate asking meaningful and impactful questions whether they are very simple helping learners to retain content or very complex encouraging more sophisticated cognitive processes. The following table uses principles from the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy to illustrate different types of meaningful multiple-choice questions.

Table 2. The cognitive processes and clicker question examples
Remember Understand Apply Analyze
Questions imply factual recall and review to gauge learner comprehension. Questions probe into learner understanding and content interpretation. Questions ask to put learned ideas and concepts to work. Questions target relationships concepts and ideas.
Recognize, Identify, Recall, Retrieve Compare, Match, Infer, Generalize Identify, Select, Predict, Choose Appraise, Calculate, Compare, Infer
Example: Select the most accurate description pointing out the difference between Fitness Trainers and Certified Athletic Trainers (ATC). Example: Three wooden blocks of different thickness but of the same composition and density are floating in a tank of water. Assume that the blocks will float only vertically.

Which diagram best illustrates how the blocks will float with respect to the water level?

Example: You are a triage nurse in a pediatric urgent care clinic and the following patients are waiting.

Which one patient out of the five described would you triage first?

Example: Out of five listed steps, select the least essential step for performing a karyotype.

(Visit CELT’s Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy website)

Multiple-choice questions might not be suitable for complex tasks of evaluating and creating.

However, Top Hat allows to move beyond multiple choice questions and ask other question types that might help to collect better data about student learning. For instance, click-on-target questions produce heat maps representing student clicks on an image and become unique ways to engage students and asses their understanding.

Implementing Effective Practices for Audience Response Technology

The effectiveness of audience response technology for asking meaningful questions is largely dependent on the quality of instruction, interaction, and classroom management.

Set Student Expectations

Let students know that interactive audience response technology has a purpose in your classroom and will be used for collecting participation and performance points. Explain how frequently interactive questions will be asked and how student responses might affect final grades. If extra credit is given for answering some questions, clearly describe when and how such extra-credit opportunities will arise.

Emphasize what other benefits beyond participation and performance points interactive questions bring to the classroom.

Keep Students Responsible

Ensure students understand the degree to which they are responsible for being prepared, bringing their smart devices and using them appropriately in the classroom. A common complaint among instructors is that students become distracted by their smart devices: lay the ground rules from the beginning and explain that smart devices can only be used when an interactive question is asked. Devices should be stored away for the rest of the classroom time if not used for responding to interactive questions.

Be Patient

Allow yourself and students time to experiment with technology. You may want to try some non-graded practice questions during the first weeks of the semester.

Point Value Matters

Plan your grading philosophy carefully. Avoid using interactive questions for high-stake assessment only, and instead focus on the potential of formative assessment. Successful classroom implementations rarely assign a greater value than 5-8% to interactive questions out of the total grade. You may also decide in favor of dropping several question points for human factors or technical issues.

Strike a Balance

Avoid too few or too many interactive questions per class session. Overusing such questions impairs the learning momentum. Typically, four to six questions is an appropriate number per class session. Limit the number of possible answers for each multiple-choice question. Five or fewer answers makes the question easier to present and explain.

Use Peer Learning

Ask some questions twice. In the first round, ask for individual submissions of the responses and do not display a correct response. In the second round, before asking the question again, allow students to discuss the same question in pairs. Display the feedback the second time around and use the moment to explore why your students have shifted their opinions.

Discuss Student Responses

After showing the distribution of student responses, consider discussing results with the class as a whole, or allow students to discuss with in pairs. Let your meaningful interactive questions stimulate a thoughtful discussion and higher-order student thinking.

Creating Accessible Content in Top Hat

It is possible that professors may create materials within Top Hat that are not accessible for all students. For general guidance and alternative ways to create accessible content, visit Utilizing Top Hat with Accessibility on the Top Hat Professor Orientation page.

For questions or concerns about accessibility in Top Hat, please contact Iowa State’s Digital Access unit at

Furthermore, visit Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Overview page to learn how it provides equal opportunities for learning to all students.

Promoting Academic Integrity

Be aware that smart devices enable students to respond to interactive questions from any location. If your intent is to only allow participation for students in your physical classroom, have a conversation as to why participation from other locations is not acceptable. Things to implement into a pro-academic integrity course:

  • Explain that the purpose of audience response technology is to effectively engage students in class by sparkling small or large group discussions to break up lecturing.
  • Establish a clear anti-cheating policy both verbally and in writing, in the class syllabus, explaining how smart devices are expected to be used in the classroom.
  • Throughout the semester, reiterate your policies. Inform your students that academic dishonesty will result in an appropriate academic penalty, including the possibility of academic probation.
  • Have your teaching assistants help you with monitoring student behaviors in the classroom.

Inform students that cheating (such as participating at a distance when interactive questions are intended for use in the classroom only) is treated in accordance with the University’s Academic Dishonesty Policy and Student Disciplinary Regulations (Code of Conduct).