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Let’s all poll together

Screenshot of poll question 'Do you use polls in your classroom' followed by two response options, 'Yes' and 'No'
What are we waiting for? Let’s poll!

I was recently asked for recommendations on simple, easy, real-time polling applications that could be used in a classroom or lecture setting to prompt discussion. I made a couple recommendations based on what I’ve observed faculty using recently, but in doing so I realized it had been some time since I’d looked at the current crop of contenders in the classroom polling realm. These types of tools come and go–what was popular last year is always in danger of being supplanted by some new contender–and so I spent a little time investigating a couple current options.

Why use classroom polling?

I’ll get to the specific tools in a moment, but first we should consider why polling tools might be valuable additions to your teaching. You’ll sometimes hear advocates of classroom polling claim that adding polling activities to your teaching will “increase student engagement” or “make learning fun.” Both of those may be true, but they don’t really tell us much about why and how polling can contribute to learning. For me, polling isn’t really about increasing student engagement in a general sense or finding ways to make students feel like they’re playing a game. Instead, it’s about finding a way to increase the frequency of active and meaningful participation by students.

There are many ways that polling might lead students to participate more fully, more actively, and, consequently, more meaningfully in a class, but here are three common ones that come immediately to mind:

  1. Polls can provide opportunities for increasing peer learning and student-to-student interactions — Well-designed classroom polls will often include structured opportunities for students to compare, explain, or discuss their responses with other students in pairs or small groups. For example, you might ask all students to respond to a poll question, compare their response with a neighbor, and then discuss with the class as a whole (a variation on the classic think-pair-share method).
  2. Polls can give students insight into their own knowledge or understanding in relation to that of others — In order for deep learning to take place, students must be able to integrate new information with the existing knowledge frameworks they use to understand the specific topic and the world at large. Providing opportunities for students to gauge their own understanding is one way to help them develop greater self-awareness about their own frameworks. Polls that ask students to respond to more open-ended or interpretive questions may be more effective in this regard than factual polls, especially when they are combined with in-class activities that invite students to explain their reasoning or describe a thought process. To some some extent that depends on the subject and the context, however.
  3. Polls can prompt students to formulate questions they otherwise might not be willing or able to ask — At some point, most of us have had the experience of feeling bewildered but being unwilling to ask questions or request clarification. It’s unfortunately all too common a situation for students as well. Polls can sometimes help students work up the courage to say that they don’t understand something, especially when they reveal that many students in the class may also be struggling with a particular topic or concept.

If you’re looking for a good book on the use of classroom response systems in general, take a look at Derek Bruff’s Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments (2009).

A few classroom polling tools

Kahoot!

The creators of this web-based tool may call it a “fun learning game” and describe it as offering “one-click gameplay,” but it’s really a very simple polling platform. By most accounts Kahoot! (oh, that exclamation point) is easy to use for instructors and students alike. While instructors will need to set up an account to begin creating questions, students don’t need to sign up for an account in order to respond to polls–something I appreciate and always consider when evaluating classroom tools. Students can use personal computers, tablets, or smartphones to respond, and the results are tabulated and displayed in real time. Brightly colored response options (accompanied by shapes to ensure legibility for individuals with color visions impairments) make answer choices easy to see even in large classrooms.

You can read for yourself how it works and what you’ll need to get started using Kahoot! so I won’t repeat any of that here. I will say that I saw it used to very good effect at a Guided Pathways session here on campus at the beginning of the academic year; it worked smoothly and proved to be effective in prompting discussion among participants.

Poll Everywhere

Poll Everywhere has been around since 2008–quite a while by technology standards–and thus represents the old guard in the realm of web-based audience/classroom response systems. That said, it has continued to develop and evolve and is now a fully featured tool that can serve many different functions. One of its notable features is its ability to receive responses via text message, which means that it will work even in settings where you can’t be certain everyone will have an internet connection. A basic version is free to use and doesn’t require an account, but as is the case for most polling tools more advanced features–including the ability to allow more than a certain number of participants–do require a paid account.

Poll Everywhere has been written up briefly in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s ProfHacker blog, so it’s worth starting their if you’re looking to learn more about using it in your own classroom.

Google Forms

While it may not be the first thing you think of when you’re looking for classroom response options, Google Forms can be used for simple polling as well. It can be a little kludgy to use in that way, but it’s possible with a little effort on your part. Plus it has the advantage of being a tool all EvCC faculty and students can already access through our college-provided Google accounts.

For a simple poll, setting up a multiple-choice question and sharing the public link with students may be all you need to do — just be sure not to collect email addresses in the form if you plan on sharing the results with your students. The current version of Google Forms permits the form creator to display the results for each question as a pie chart, which might be all you need if your goal is to prompt discussion or further questions during class.

Hands (or notecards)

There’s also the tried-and-true method of keeping basic classroom ‘polling’ firmly planted in the physical world, and some of the most effective teachers I’ve ever observed do exactly that. Why mess with something that works, after all?

I’ve seen some instructors distribute colored index cards or notecards that can be used to indicate different responses to a question — a physical equivalent to the color-coded responses Kahoot! uses. I’ve also seen instructors take very literally the “active” in “active learning,” asking students to physically move to different regions of the room, or to stand up or sit down, as a methods for indicating different responses to questions. This latter approach can work especially well if it leads naturally to group activities that are based on the clusters that form in different parts of the room.

Give one a try, then let us know how it goes

That is by no means an exhaustive list of the options available to you if you’re considering doing more classroom polling. (In fact, it barely scratches the surface–but you have to start somewhere!)

It’s worth noting that I’m not endorsing any of the specific tools mentioned above. As with most things, in teaching and in life, the best way to decide whether a given approach will work for you is to give it a spin and then observe the results. If you do try any of these, though, please share your experiences in the comments. And if you have a particular classroom response tool you favor above any of these, share that as well and I will update this post accordingly.