ALPINE — Ensuring students understand a new concept taught in the classroom can be difficult for teachers, especially when many students aren’t willing to ask questions because they don’t want to be embarrassed.

A recent study by the University of Pennsylvania found students of working-class families are much less likely than their middle-class peers to raise their hands and ask a question. Not surprisingly, the researchers note dropout rates among students from working-class families are five times greater.

New technology is making it possible for students to tell a teacher if they don't understand a concept without being put on the spot.

At Westfield Elementary School in Alpine, Karre Nevarez has a new tool to help her know if her sixth-grade class is understanding as they review a new concept in astronomy.

"It definitely makes it a lot less daunting for the student because they can immediately say, ‘I don't know that.' But the rest of the class has no idea," Nevarez explained.

The SMART Response devices are somewhat like handheld video games. Students answer questions with the buttons, and the data immediately register on the teacher's computer. She knows right away who is having trouble.

Students say the anonymity removes the pressure. "Because not everybody knows what score you got, only Mrs. Nevarez knows," said student Chloe Pendleton.

"I like it because she can help us with our troubles, and she does, if we're wrong," classmate Cora Wescott added.

For the teacher, the technology provides instant feedback, so she can change how she's presenting information that day and make sure students understand before she moves on. And equally important: it's automated.

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"I used to stay up until 1:00, 2:00 in the morning grading papers, and this makes it so not only are they getting an immediate response, the computer is correcting for me," Nevarez said.

She applied for a grant to obtain the technology, which is expensive. But she and her students wish more teachers could provide this kind of help so students don't have to face the embarrassment of asking for it.

"I really wish I could have this kind of technology in all my classes,” said student Jacob Arnold. “It's been a life-changer for me.”

Contributing:  Ashley Kewish