Online polling with university students

My aim this past year was to introduce online polling as a way to increase student engagement and motivation in their learning. I wanted to go beyond merely creating multiple choice questions but to really—really—think about how to embed an online voting system into my lectures and tutorials. I didn’t want my use of online polling to be merely a ‘bolt-on’ to assess their learning but to use it as a means to improve their contributions in class and to engage them in their learning.

These are a number of main points I’ll discuss:

  • Software/hardware used and limitations;
  • Changes made to teaching methodology;
  • Review and reflection on changes;
  • Next steps

Software/hardware used and limitations

The first challenge was deciding which hardware to use. There were ‘clickers’ available, TV-remote-type devices which needed to be charged as well as synced to the computer and matched to software. It also meant distributing them at the beginning of each class and collecting them at the end. It seemed laborious, time-consuming and a little old-fashioned.

I turned to online polling software as students would be able to use their own devices—smartphones, tablets and laptops which would connect via WiFi. I also needed to find low-cost solutions (for reasons which any educator will whole-heartedly understand).

The three polling programmes which I decided to use were PollEverywhere, Socrative and TopHat. I introduced them simultaneously to gauge what would work and what wouldn’t. The justification for running all three at once stems from what I call The DS9 Introduction Principle. The writers of DS9 (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to give it its full title) wanted to introduce some new adversaries and had three species lined up (the Jem’hadar, the Vorta and the Founders, if you are interested). It was decided to introduce all three at once on the assumption that at least one of the species would ‘click’ with the viewers ( In a similar fashion, I decided to introduce the three voting systems at the same time. By the end of the 6th week, one programme had been favoured over the others. On a side note, it may be of interest to know that all 3 species introduced in DS9 were accepted and embraced by the fans.

From my point of view, I liked TopHat’s potential. However, it did far more than I needed it to and I didn’t find it particularly user friendly. Creating questions on TopHat, particularly for those created on-the-fly, wasn’t particularly quick or easy. For those who wish to use it to take attendance, grade students or to tap the summative potential of online polling, it’s an excellent programme. For me, however, it was as if I was competing in the Tour de France having just had the training wheels taken off my bicycle. The other issue with TopHat is that students are required to sign in with an identifying email and username before using it. While polls could then be made anonymous, some students were not comfortable with this.

Socrative’s Space Race is a good idea and the students enjoyed it; I can see much use could be made of it. However, PollEverywhere’s easier organisation and the ability to respond via Twitter and texts made it the main programme for the rest of the academic year.

As the focus shifted to PollEverywhere, the students were able to concentrate on learning via the polling software rather than learning about the polling software.

I made arrangements to have some of the University’s laptops available for students who did not have their own devices. However, by the end of week two (once connectivity issues had been sorted out) it became clear that the students were happy to bring in their devices and that the laptops were unnecessary.

PollEverywhere’s 40-student limit was an issue; this was overcome by changing my teaching methodology.

Changes made to teaching methodology

PollEverywhere’s 40-response limit meant I needed to provide my 50+ students with opportunities to work with a partner. I created polling tasks which would encourage collaboration before voting. As the year progressed, multiple-choice questions to be answered by individuals were replaced by more collaborative tasks.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I didn’t want to use polling as a ‘bolt-on’. In other words, I didn’t want to conclude with a 5-minute plenary where I would say, “Right, folks. Let’s do a poll about …”. This, to me, wasn’t going to engage students for more than 5 minutes. What I wanted was for the polling to become more integral to the students’ learning, taking place throughout the lecture/tutorial—not just at the end.

Usually in a lecture I would have various places in which students would be expected to review what had just been learned or to discuss a particular point of view/issue. There was no easy way for me to gauge their understanding (or their engagement). Using the polling software, the students’ responses provided me with a way to gauge the understanding of the whole class. Moreover, students enjoyed seeing their responses presented to the whole class (particularly as they were anonymised). In this way, even incorrect responses became a teaching tool and there were fewer inhibitions about ‘getting it wrong’.

As well as lectures, the tutorials also benefitted from online polling. Previously, students would discuss their personal research with other three students in their groups of four. I realised that while the students were explaining their personal research to the others, the other three students were not particularly engaged. There were few (if any) challenging questions being asked of the researcher—”What year was your paper written?” and “Did you find it easy to read? are not, in my mind, probing questions—and I wanted my students to improve their ability to provide effective feedback.

PollEverywhere allows a Q&A/Brainstorm in which students can type long phrases and sentences. The three listeners in the groups were instructed to work as a team to write a feedback response to the presenter via Q&A/Brainstorm. These responses (one from each group) were visible for all other students to read. Each student was then asked to vote for the best-written feedback. I then discussed the top two or three responses with the class in order to help students develop effective feedback writing skills. This activity was repeated four times within each group and it was striking how the students’ feedback improved even in the one tutorial session!

Feedback was not only being used to improve the students’ learning but to help me improve my teaching. For some lectures which I knew could be challenging, I created a poll to allow the students to vote when they wanted clarification. (At one point in a lecture, the bar graph for “I’m confused” shot up in a matter of seconds and it was clear I needed to explain that particular point in a different way). The instant feedback was helpful not only for my teaching but also gave students the power to be more actively involved in the lecture, using polling to effectively speed up or slow down the lecture. (No, there wasn’t a mute button despite requests!)

Review and reflection on changes

On reflection, online polling helped students to:

  • participate more confidently in discussions;
  • consolidate and reflect on learning;
  • provide effective feedback to others.

It was clear, almost from the first week, students were more engaged, both in lectures and in tutorials. To begin with, I was concerned this may have been due to the novelty factor. However, this higher engagement was noticeable throughout the academic year. To be fair, there was a ‘lull’ in the middle of the second semester but this was not due to polling but due to the structure of the weekly tutorials which had become repetitive. The integration of polling into my lectures and tutorials was, overall, resoundingly successful and satisfactory for both me as the teacher and for the students.

Next Steps

There is, of course, still room for improvement. My goals for the upcoming academic year are to integrate PollEverywhere’s Keynote and Powerpoint plug-in into lectures, create polls to allow students to review their learning in their own time and to write shorter blog entries.

Update: I’m also going to put another polling programme through its paces – Mentimeter. It has some nice visuals and the pricing is reasonable.  I think it has potential!


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