Polling & Clickers

Anonymously “polling” your students during class using audience-response technologies is a great way either to receive feedback about how well the class is following your lecture, or to find out where your students’ opinions may fall on a debatable issue before, during, and/or after a class discussion. [A short note on terminology: here we use the term “polling” to describe questions that students can answer with their own smartphones, laptops, or tablets (such as Learning Catalytics and Poll Everywhere).] Academic Technology for the FAS has an excellent page devoted to the clickers/polling software that they support, so this page will primarily discuss pedagogical uses of polling in class.

What Makes a Good Polling Question?

Generally, polling questions should focus on students’ conceptual understanding rather than their computational skills or factual memorization. Good questions typically allow students to practice applying a skill, or respond to the substance of an argument, that was just discussed in class. (That said, you may also want to use them prior to discussing a concept, as a way of testing students’ prior knowledge or preexisting assumptions.) Every time you teach your students a new skill or concept, you can always check to see if they are following along by asking a polling question that asks them to solve a problem or analyze data.

Many polling questions tend to be multiple-choice questions (MCQs), and the same rules describing good MCQs also govern polling questions:

  • The question should be intelligible to everyone in the audience.
  • The correct answer should be unequivocally correct.
  • The “distractors” (the incorrect choices of the MCQ) should be unequivocally incorrect, but should be reasonable for students to choose if they have a misconception. If no students choose a particular distractor, it is not a good distractor.

True/False questions and Fill in the Blank questions can also make for excellent (and challenging) polling questions, and can lead to engaging discussions after the polling is over.

A classroom discussion following a multiple choice polling question should address both why the correct answer is correct and why the incorrect answers are incorrect, and prepare students to succeed in subsequent course work (problem sets, papers, exams, laboratories, etc.).

Best Practices: Incorporating Peer Instruction

Clicker questions can easily incorporate “peer instruction,” an evidence-based teaching approach pioneered by Eric Mazur.

To incorporate peer instruction, ask students to first answer a multiple-choice question individually. Once the students have all responded, then ask the students to take a few minutes to discuss their responses with their neighbors before answering again. Often you will see student responses shift towards the correct answer after they have a chance to discuss the question amongst themselves.
Classroom research shows that it is specifically the discussion between students about a question, and not clicker use by itself, which results in better overall conceptual learning. (See, for example, M.K. Smith et. al., "Why Peer Discussion Improves Student Performance on In-Class Concept Questions," Science 2 January 2009, 122–124.)

How Often Should I Ask Polling Questions?

Many classes ask 3-5 polling questions per 75 minute class. One strategy is to ask questions after you introduce each new concept or skill to make sure students are following along and can execute the skill or apply the new concept in a meaningful way. Another approach is to introduce a new topic with a clicker question to motivate the teaching and learning of the upcoming material.

Each question requires giving students 1–2 minutes to think about the question and then enter their answer. Providing students a chance to talk to their neighbors about the question and then enter their answers again can take another 5 minutes, if you have time. A final group discussion to confirm why the right answer is correct can also take a few minutes (or longer, depending on how complicated the question is)—all of which is to say that a polling question can easily take 5–10 minutes to execute, so you should plan accordingly.

An instructor can also use polling to have students indicate which topics are unclear to identify which points require further clarification, either in real-time or for the following class meeting. You can use either multiple choice questions or open response questions, in which students can type a text answer in response to a question like “What was the most important thing you learned today?” or “What topic from today’s class is still confusing to you?”

When Should Polling be Anonymous?

Polling questions tend to work best when all students in the classroom answer them, giving you an accurate sense of the level of understanding or the nature of the opinions held by all your students. While it can be great to hear in greater detail what a handful of your students are thinking, anonymous polling of the entire class creates a low-stakes way to hear from everyone—and particularly from those who may be reluctant to participate in a way that exposes their own understanding or preferences in an individually identifiable way.

Anonymity does not prevent you from counting your students’ responses towards the participation component of their course grade. Each of the types of polling technology supported by Academic Technology for the FAS can be uniquely coded to individual students, such that you can track a particular student’s answers throughout a semester. The “anonymity” simply means students’ names are not visible to their peers when the instructor displays the results of a poll during lecture.