‘What do you think of the following proposition?’ ‘Who agrees with it?’ One possible teaching method for activating students involves working with polls. In this method, the teacher presents students with a challenging proposition, question or case that has several response options.

Polls can be used at several points during a lecture in order to achieve a variety of goals. Polls that are integrated into the start of the lecture can be used to assess the extent to which students have processed the material from the previous lecture. Alternatively, the teacher can activate the students’ prior knowledge and use it as a foundation for starting a discussion. During or at the end of the lecture, polls can be used to determine whether students are sufficiently on board or to help them with the further processing of the course material that has been presented. 

It is relatively easy to organise polls. Even with large groups, they can be a way to reach as many students as possible. A poll can consist of one or more short questions as an intermediate activity, although it could also involve a complex case that covers an important part of the lecture.

Students can vote in several different ways:

  • Show of hands or cards: Students indicate the answers that they consider correct by raising their hands or by using coloured (or otherwise coded) cards (e.g. yes/no/abstention). Working with show of hands or cards does not require much work. In some cases, however, students can be influenced by their fellow students. Students who are uncertain might decide not to raise their hands or vote based on the answers of others. This reflex largely disappears when students vote digitally or online.
  • Digital or online: Students can vote using voting boxes, text messages or the internet connections on their smartphones or laptops. Polls can be relatively simple to using the free software in presentation (see e.g. Shakespeak in the section ‘To learn more’). This provides both the teacher and the students with an immediate overview of the answers that have been given on the next slide. This response can subsequently be used as feedback or for purposes of discussion. 

The debriefing is an important part of the poll with regard to its learning effect. For example, during the debriefing, several students can be called on to speak based on their answers. Be sure that the answer or the nuances that must be made are sufficiently clear to the students before continuing with the lecture.

It is also important to ensure that the question or statement is neither too simple nor too complex. If the question or statement is too simple, there will be little or no discussion, as nearly everyone will give the same answer. If it is too complex, the students will not be able to cast a well-considered vote, if they are able to vote at all. This will also impede the discussion and call the added value of the poll into question.

The following approach can be used for complex tasks:

  1. The students first complete the task individually.
  2. Then they vote.
  3. They subsequently review and exchange arguments about each other’s answers in small groups.
  4. A second poll can be held, based on the discussion in the group.

This approach ensures that students address the course material in depth. Experience has shown that the number of correct answers increases considerably after students have consulted with each other. This approach is referred to as peer instruction.

Feedback for students and teachers
Student evaluations of teachers who use polls provide a clear indication that students perceive polls as positive. They are urged to think about the course material, and they receive immediate feedback: ‘Have I understood it?’ The teacher also receives immediate feedback on the extent to which the students are keeping up with the course material. This is often regarded as an advantage in teaching situations in which it is more difficult is to determine whether students have understood the course material and whether the pace is appropriate, as is the case with large student groups and lectures.

Want to know more?

PollEverywhere: The University of Antwerp has a licence for teaching staff to use PollEverywhere. Please contact Sven Van der Stappen for further information and to create an account on PollEverywhere (which makes it possible to use PollEverywhere for large numbers of students as well).

Other free programs are also available for organising polls (e.g. Socrative), although many are limited to around 50 students.

Crouch, C. H., & Mazur, E. (2001). Peer Instruction: Ten years of experience and results. American Journal of Physics, 69(9), 970-977.

Spanjers, I. A. E., Könings, K. D., Leppink, J., Verstegen, D. M. L., de Jong, N., Czabanowska, K., & van Merriënboer, J. J. G. (2015). The promised land of blended learning: Quizzes as a moderator. Educational Research Review, 15, 59-74.