Digital Polling in the Classroom: To BYOD or not to BYOD?
by Jane Hirtle, CFT Graduate Teaching Fellow
At the Center for Teaching we’ve been keeping a close eye on the rapidly changing world of classroom response systems. Where once there were few options, professors now have many choices both in terms of what kind of system to use and how to employ it as a teaching and learning tool. This abundance of choice led us to ask which ones are in use here at Vanderbilt and how professors’ teaching styles inform their use of such systems.
To answer these questions, I chatted with Jaco Hamman (Associate Professor of Religion, Psychology, and Culture at the Divinity School), who uses Poll Everywhere, Bruce Barry (Professor of Management and Professor of Sociology), who uses TurningPoint clickers, and Corbette Doyle (Lecturer in the department of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations), who formerly used Turning Point clickers and now uses Poll Everywhere. Their comments have been surprising both in the differences and similarities across systems and departments. Here’s what they had to say:
How does using a classroom response system suit your teaching style?
JH: “My classrooms typically I divide into three – which a third would be me saying something, a third of collaborative learning, and a third of student presentation or case study. From [my own] research [on handheld technology] I know that students basically every fifteen minutes need to check in with their devices or they get pretty anxious. So I do try to do things every fifteen minutes or so, to either send them online, they have to Google something quick for 5 seconds and then come back in to the class, or just something for them to check in with their device. Because if we don’t do that constructively in class, they will check in to Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and all these other things that aren’t necessarily helpful to our class.”
BB: “I like polling for two reasons. One is the private commitment you put up some thorny ethical dilemma and you ask, ‘Is this ethical or not?’ then it’s a situation ripe for people to manage their self-image by checking to see, ‘Am I the only one who thinks this might be ethical?’ so the private commitment is key. [For example] I did one recently where it was very tilted – 90% thought it was unethical and some very small percentage thought it was ethical. So I can say look, I’m not going to make you talk because we do say these polls are private, but I know 3 or 4 of you said this was okay so I wish one of you would speak up and almost always somebody will. The other thing I like being able to do also is delayed processing of [responses]. So tomorrow for example I want early in the class to ask a few questions about whether they think certain situations are or are not sexual harassment. What I want is for them to answer the questions, but I don’t want to show them the result. I like the way this lets me get the commitment out of them before we have the conversation.”
CD: “I focus on student feedback because I’m a very strong advocate for student-directed learning. The role of the teacher is a guide or a mentor rather than standing up in front [lecturing]. But one of the big risks with student-centered learning is that you don’t have any leading insight about whether or not students are getting what you want them to get. And it’s very risky to wait until the end of an assignment or the end of a course to find out if in fact students are grasping the concepts. The polling is a great way to get ongoing insight. I use it to stimulate conversations after pretty much every major assignment – I will use a couple of polls to find out what worked, what didn’t and then have students share different thoughts. I find if I just do a poll, the poll results don’t yield the same kind of insight. So I might have a 60/40 split on a particular question but by then opening it up for conversation, I will have students get engaged in a dialogue with one another about so it provides much more effective insight for me.”
How do you use your system in class?
JH: “I use it to help me out with a couple of things. The first one is transitioning into class. I post a question using Poll Everywhere, and as students come in the invitation is there. Then I start off with either a few opening comments or a mini-lecture, and then I return to the very answers they gave using Poll Everywhere so that their voice now turns our classroom in certain directions. I often use word clouds to give students a sense of where they put emphasis and we can use that to ask if that’s where the authors lean or not, we can compare or contrast with the readings of the day. And then finally I ask them to text in a question that remains at the end of the day that can maybe begin next week’s class.”
BB: “I teach this ethics class. I use polling because I want to anonymously poll, which is to say I want to ask a question and poll the class in a way that lets them make a private commitment to an answer, which I can’t do with a show of hands. I will often ask them some sort of little ethical dilemma, it could be about a case that they’ve prepared that’s a more complicated one that we would then be talking about for the next 45 minutes, or sometimes it’s just a sort of one-off shot, ‘Ask the Ethicist’ kind of quickie question. ‘Is this ethical or not?’ or ‘On a scale of 1 to 7…’ and I’ll put up a Likert scale on the screen.”
CD: “I use polling for two reasons: one is for feedback and the other is for formative assessments to find out whether or not students are on track in terms of the learning objectives. And if not, then I can just do a spot lecture – so I don’t have to lecture the whole class, I can just do a 10 or 15 minute mini-lecture or discussion about critical points I need to make sure that everyone’s getting [it]. If you start flipping your classroom so that students are doing in class, then polling becomes critical for helping you assess where you need to make changes. And it’s far more valuable then attendance or ‘did students do the reading?’ I care if students do the reading, but if students don’t do the reading then I’m not motivating them to do the reading.”
Despite the differences in their disciplines, learning goals, and individual teaching styles, our professors are using polling systems successfully to guide or initiate conversations in class, rather than for simply tracking attendance or giving test questions devoid of in-class discussion. Do you use a classroom response system in your own teaching? Which one or ones do you use? What excites you about it – or what about it drives you up the wall? Let us know in your comments!