Kate Daniels

“Any questions?” Engaging your students with interactive polls.

I’ve been indulging in a bit of a guilty pleasure lately: a network television series that ran a couple of years ago called Lie To Me. It stars Tim Roth as Dr. Cal Lightman, a deception specialist who is hired by agencies and individuals to determine the “truth” at a crime scene.

Dr. Lightman and his team of experts study the micro-expressions (brief, involuntary facial expressions) on all of the parties involved.

Be it a downturn of the mouth, or a twitch under the eye, “The Lightman Group” banks on the fact that these micro-expressions consistently indicate emotions such as guilt, shame, fear or arousal.  These expressions are especially apparent when video footage of a subject is slowed down and studied, frame-by-frame. The scientific premise of the show is based on the cutting-edge research of psychologist Paul Ekman

Paul Ekman group facial expression picturesPhoto credit: Paul Ekman Group

I bring this up because I distinctly remember one of my instructional design mentors, Dr. Mahnaz Moallem, lecturing on the inaccurate “hunches” that instructors tend to make about their students in the face-to-face setting.

Example: none of their eyes are closed, no one is texting on their phones, a couple of them had valuable things to say, most are nodding…so they must be following what I’m saying. Maybe?

Face-to-face teaching too often involves a quick, intuitive read of students’ faces to determine whether they are following or understanding the course content.

But, who has time to slow down and have every student respond to a discussion question?

And, it doesn’t help that “any questions?” is usually met with radio silence.

So, given that:

  • Hunches are inaccurate
  • Asking everyone to speak takes too long
  • Micro-expressions only appear for 1/25th of a second

How can we discern what the students are really thinking about the content?

My preferred instructional strategy for addressing this question is polling.

More specificially, I recommend mobile-optimized tools such as Socrative or PollEverywhere. (Clickers are used similarly, though they can be costly and don’t have the same level of functionality as mobile applications.)

The ed tech term for polling tools such as PollEverywhere or the iClicker is “Classroom Response Systems.” CRSs cut right through hunches, the flat affect, the Facebook feed, even daydreams, and instantly reveal the students’ mastery of the course content at hand.  Instructors create poll questions ahead of time, or on the fly.  The questions are displayed in a PowerPoint presentation, through a web browser, or presented verbally.  Students respond via mobile devices, tablets, laptops, or any device that has a web browser.  In the event that not all students have a phone, some polling apps, such as Socrative, allow more than one student to respond using a single mobile device.

American College of Surgeons Division of Education polling graphPhoto credit: American College of Surgeons Division of Education.

Students can be identified when they respond, or they can weigh in anonymously, depending on the instructional goal. Instructors can offer pop-quizzes (see above), open-ended questions (“What was your favorite passage in the reading last night?”), or creative challenges (“Compose a haiku based on your dietary preferences.”] Students can even be asked to come up with the prompts for each class period.  Or, if one wants a fun way to take attendance, how about asking “what’s one thing you read today that WASN’T on your phone?”

Most importantly, when a poll is deployed, instructors hear from every student in the room, in real time—and no need for the Lightman Group.

Derek Bruff, director the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, has been researching CRSs for many years. His CRS page includes a wealth of pedagogical suggestions, examples, and guidance for poll questions.

Chronicle of Higher Education

Photo credit: Chronicle of Higher Education

The polling possibilities really are endless. And engaging. And effective. In a recent study at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, 82% of students polled agreed they were more willing to be engaged in classroom discussion with polling. 77% said they would be more likely to answer questions via text, rather than verbally.

We can groan about how students are looking at their phones too much and need to learn how to speak up in class.  Or, we can capitalize on the potential of polling, and groan later, at the pub.

For more information about how to incorporate polling in your course, contact the DePaul Mobile Learning Initiative: MoLI@depaul.edu.

Further reading about the value of polling in the classroom:

Agile Learning (Derek Bruff’s Blog)

Sample, Mark. (2012) ProfHacker Blog: Live Polling of Your Students with Poll Everywhere. Chronicle of Higher Education website. http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/live-polling-of-your-students-with-poll-everywhere/44961

5 thoughts on ““Any questions?” Engaging your students with interactive polls.

  1. I have toyed with idea and the implementation of using polls in my class. I have found that its implementation hard than I would like. Not only does the setup and maintenance of polls draws time away from the class, but I haven’t found an effective way to include it in my woodshop classes. Then with all that aside, there are issues monitoring the appropriate use of technology in a high school setting. Sure in the perfect world, the students get out their smart phone that they only use for education purposes and take the online poll and contribute something to the class and the growth of their peers. But in a real world setting that is a lot harder to accomplish and the draw of everything else that that the technology can do often is too alluring for teenagers to say no to.
    What type of ideas and solutions can be found to overcome the obvious hurdles that polling would cause to have the benefits outweigh the risks?
    There are students in my classes that are too shy and lacking in self confidence to speak to me on a daily basis and there are students who do not think that their opinion is even worth saying. Polling would give these students a voice, and have that voice heard by the rest of the class as well as by the teacher. Which with some of my students that would be an amazing step to fully including them in the classroom and the learning activities. But therein lies the rub. How does one take advantage of electronic polling without opening a floodgate of irresponsible behavior?
    I know that the answer should be simply to keep a better eye on what the students are doing and monitor their electronic usage. But all of that does take extra time away from either other activities and or other teacher responsibilities. Also remember that this is a woodshop class where lecturing is not the norm and multiple students are spread out over a giant shop working on different stages of projects with scary power tools. So anything that takes my attention away from that would be something would make the classroom a more dangerous environment.
    I hope that you can see the quandary that I am in and how I am torn between the benefits of one versus what it could actually cost in my classroom.
    Any ideas or suggestions to effectively use polling as a learning tool would be greatly appreciated.

  2. Hi Mark, I’m so glad you reached out. Thanks for your interest!
    A couple of ideas:
    First, consider polling your students when they first come to class, and/ or at the end of class. With high school students, I think it’s best to be set hard limits on when and how long their phones can be out in class.
    In addition, keeping the use of phones confined to the first and last five minutes means the students won’t have to look away from the machinery to fumble with their phones.
    (Your polls can serve as an attendance call as well. Instead of taking roll, you can post poll questions to be sure they are up to speed on the course content.)
    Second, if you want to quiz students about shop tools, or woods, or processes, I would recommend using photographs (not text) to convey your information.
    In other words, if you want them to know the difference, at a glance, say, between certain woods, tools, or stains, you can post photos depicting these items and have them identify what they are seeing.
    I’d be delighted to throw around more polling ideas with you if you’d like to email me personally. My contact info is posted here: http://fits.depaul.edu/Contacts/Pages/default.aspx.
    Thanks again!

  3. Thank you for the insightful post Kate! I am often looking for new ways to engage participants face-to-face and online. I find that I often will ask general questions in the beginning of class and the end to recap or review the lesson. I’m sure you can guess that most of the time the same students will answer and it is hard to judge if everyone is on the same page or if any has additional questions. I like the idea of the polls to get engagement from more students and then use that to lead the discussion. What polling sites do you recommend? Are many of them free?
    Thank you!
    Andrea Bundt
    Roosevelt University Training & Development Graduate Student

  4. Greetings Andrea! Polls really are a wonderful way to engage every student in the room. There are several free web-based systems. I have used Poll Everywhere and Socrative extensively, but there are others worth exploring such as Shakespeak and Text The Mob. Poll Everywhere created a table of their competitors with a breakdown of pricing and features: http://www.polleverywhere.com/vs
    Hope you take the plunge!

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