Teaching Resources

Polling Activities and Questions

Resource Overview

Different types of polling activities and questions that you can integrate into your course.

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Classroom polls are a tool that can be integrated into courses of various sizes and structures. Through the use of polls, both instructors and students can gain real-time feedback on student understanding of course material. Below is a non-exhaustive list of polling activities and questions that can be used by instructors across disciplines to achieve their desired learning goals. We have also created a curated list of disciplinary question banks, journal articles, and blog posts about using polls in the References section.

Types of Polling Activities

Peer Instruction

This clicker methodology, first developed by Mazur (1997), engages students in large classrooms with polling questions by having students discuss their answers with peers. This strategy was developed around the idea that often peers can be better at explaining concepts to each other than an expert is. In Peer Instruction, a question is asked and students respond as individuals. Then, students are shown a histogram of their results and tasked with discussing the question and their original solution with a neighbor. This step forces students to explain their own response and the thought process that they used to arrive at that answer. After a few minutes of discussion, students are asked to respond to the same question. Finally, the instructor explains what the correct answer is and why. The question can be a quantitative problem, a conceptual problem about a reading or homework assignment, or anything else that fits the instructor’s course plan.

The key to a good question for peer instruction is that it elicits a wide array of initial answers, facilitating conversation and discussion (i.e. a recall question would likely not be a good fit). Peer Instruction can also include a step where students rate their confidence in their answer choices (Wagner 2009), which can be a useful self-assessment and reflection step.

Group Work

Polls can be used in a number of ways to help facilitate productive group work. Below are examples of ways to utilize polls as tools for tracking student progress and engaging groups with course material. Using polls to facilitate group work can be especially useful in a course that has been flipped to maximize the amount of in-class time that is used for group work.

Example 1: Instructor asks students, “How many minutes do you need to complete the rest of the group assignment?” (1 minute, 3 minutes, 5 minutes). This allows the instructor to quickly identify how groups are progressing on an in-class project.

Example 2: Groups participate in a version of peer instruction where each individual respond to the question and then the group as a whole must discuss and submit only one response. This facilitation technique forces each student to commit to an answer and then engage in a group discussion until all agree on the single group choice.

Example 3: Instructor asks students, “Please rate the effectiveness of Group 4’s presentation today.” This allows an instructor to quickly and anonymously gather peer feedback on group presentations.

Example 4: Instructor uses polls to have a group provide one response to a given question as a whole. This structure can be used to facilitate group quizzes or have groups provide answers to in-class problem sets.

Progress Update

Polls are useful tools for checking in with a class about the status of student progress toward completion of in-class group work or a long-term project like a lab report, final research paper, or group presentation.

Example 1: Instructor asks students, “How many minutes do you need to complete the rest of the group assignment?” (1 minute, 3 minutes, 5 minutes). Then the instructor uses that information to determine how much longer to allow students to work before bringing them back together for a class wide discussion. This strategy can also be used to ask students how much time they need to complete a peer review process or individual assignment.

Example 2: Instructor asks students, “What stage of the process of writing are you in?”  and identifies how much progress students have made toward the final goal. This question could also be framed as a yes/no question, e.g. “I have started writing a draft of the lab report.” Questions like these also remind students about upcoming deadlines and provide a gentle push for students to avoid cramming at the last minute.

Attendance and Participation

Polls are quick and easy tools for tracking student attendance in both medium-and large-sized classes. To track attendance, instructors must have a way to sync the responses from a poll to student identity. Most polling systems have a built-in attendance system that tracks student participation throughout the questions asked during a class period and calculates a participation (or attendance) score. If you are using polls to determine student attendance, it is important to tell the students upfront about this policy and describe how attendance will be determined (i.e. What percentage of questions does a student need to answer in a class period to be counted as having attended?)

Quizzing

Polls can be a useful way to conduct summative assessments in large classes due to the ease of grading and recording responses from a large number of students. Summative assessments are typically used at the end of a unit or course. They are higher stakes and indicate more finalized ‘results’ than formative, in progress, assessments. Polls can be used to conduct end of unit quizzes or the multiple-choice portion of an exam. If you are planning to use polls as a formal grading mechanism for higher stress assessments, make sure that you have already used them in a more informal way in the classroom. This will allow you and the students to become familiar with the system, which will limit the number of technical issues that might occur during the testing period. Also, have a back-up option ready for if you have technical difficulties.

Types of Polling Questions

Recall Questions

Recall questions are a straightforward test of student memory of material discussed in the lecture, a reading assignment, or homework problem. These questions are designed to assess if a student remembers the information. They are not structured to assess a student’s ability to apply or understand the concepts. These questions are useful at the beginning of a class when asking students to recall a previous lecture topic. In this way, this kind of question allows students a few minutes to get back into the mindset of your course material and be ready to engage with that day’s material. Retrieval practice also promotes learning, as highlighted in a study conducted by Karpicke 2008.

Example 1: “Thinking back to the lecture, which principle do you need to know to solve the following problem?”

Example 2: “Which theme that we addressed last week does this text engage with as well?”

Conceptual Questions

Conceptual questions can take many forms, but are fundamentally questions that assess a student’s ability to understand the concept presented. These questions move beyond the recall stage and into a higher order of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Furthermore, these questions can lead to productive and effective class discussions (either instructor- or peer-led) because they require a deeper engagement with the material. Three ways to ask conceptual questions (correcting common misconceptions, classification, and student explanation) are described below.

Correcting Common Misconceptions

This style of conceptual questions provides the correct answer as an option as well as multiple incorrect answers that rely on common student misconceptions about a topic. Incorporating such questions is a useful way to highlight and clear up such misconceptions for students. Furthermore, questions written with multiple answers that students may debate can lead to a productive classroom discussion. It is always important to build in time to provide closure for students, but it is especially necessary in this case to ensure students understand why the common misconception is incorrect.

Classification

In a classification polling question, the instructor asks students to consider information and determine how to situate it within categories of knowledge. These questions can be a useful way to engage students in a class discussion about a reading or homework assignment and have students draw connections between varied course content. These questions are particularly well designed to foster robust discussion because students often have differing ideas about how to classify information. More specifically, by asking students to classify information and then explain their rationale the instructor is promoting a much deeper engagement with the content. Using classification questions also allows the instructor to gain an understanding of how students are processing the course material and to clarify any confusion.

Student explanation

This style of question asks students to initially respond to the question by writing down their own answers before being shown the instructor generated answer choices. Then, students are tasked with determining which of the options provided by the instructor best matches their written explanation(s). This type of question forces students to consider their or their small group’s, ideas first, and come up with a response rather than relying on the answers provided.

Instructors can also allow students, or groups of students, to volunteer their solutions/answers and ask the class to vote on the accuracy of this proposed solution.

Muddiest Point

Polls can be a useful tool for identifying in real time if students are struggling with a particular concept or keeping pace with the material presented in a lecture. The muddiest point activity usually involves students writing down the most confusing topic covered in class and turning it in on their way out of class. Obviously, collecting paper from each student is cumbersome for instructors teaching in a large lecture format. Polls allow an instructor to ask muddiest point questions and get feedback from hundreds of students instantly. The results of a muddiest point question can be used to conduct a brief 5-minute review of the most confusing point at the beginning of the next lecture, and may generally inform how instructors present information in the future. Examples of how this polling activity was conducted successfully in a large chemistry class can be found in King (2011).

Example 1: “Of the concepts covered in lecture today, which remains the most confusing?”

Example 2: “What is the topic that we’ve covered during the exam period that you are least comfortable with right now? We will start the review session with the most chosen topic.”

Personal Beliefs or Perspective Questions

In many fields, instructors want to encourage students to provide and defend their beliefs or perspectives on topics in order to engage with the course material and foster discussion. These questions are useful when teaching a sensitive or controversial topic in which commonly students bring their own outside beliefs and perspectives into the conversation. However, providing such personal information or beliefs can prove intimidating for some students who do not feel comfortable speaking in large groups and it can be difficult to ensure that a varied group of students responds to requests for opinions. Polls allow for students to respond in an anonymous format that can be used to engage in a large group discussion. The responses to these questions are also useful to the instructor to ensure that they are being inclusive of students’ personal beliefs when leading a discussion and not making assumptions about the opinions of the students they are teaching. These questions can be used on their own or in combination with another active learning strategy such as Think, Pair, Share.

Example 1: “Which of the following statements most closely matches your beliefs on evolution?”

Experiment or Predictive Questions

In experiment driven pooling questions, the instructor seeks to replicate an experimental result in the classroom or to ask students to predict the result of an experiment or likely outcome of a text. In a social science course, this line of questioning can be used as a way to engage students in conversations about research and illustrate an experimental result. In a physical science class, these questions can test students’ understandings of physical properties or highlight a common misunderstanding that is corrected through the experimental demonstration.

Example 1: The instructor asks “Compared to the average student in this class, my driving skills are . . . 1. Above average, 2. Average,  3. Below average.” Few students will select 3, and this can lead into a discussion and explanation of the better-than-average effect.

Example 2: Before conducting a demonstration, the instructor asks “Of the following outcomes, which is the most likely to occur?”

Example 3: “How will acid effect an intaglio plate in printmaking?”

Example 4: “Based on what we know about these characters so far, what is a likely outcome that we are headed for?”

References

Beatty, I.D., Gerace, W.J., Leonard, W. J. & Dufresne, R.J. (2006). Designing effective questions for classroom response system teaching. American Journal of Physics, 74(1), 31-39.

Bruff, D. (2009). Teaching with classroom response systems: Creating active learning environments. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bruff, Derek. (n.d.) Classroom response systems (‘clickers’). Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University. Retrieved from cft.vanderbilt.edu/cft/guides-sub-pages/clickers/.

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

Goldstein, D.S. & Wallis, P.D. (2015). Clickers in the classroom: Using classroom response systems to increase student learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Kay, R.H. & LeSage, A. (2009). Examining the benefits and challenges of using audience response systems: A review of the literature. Computers & Education, 53, 819-827.

Mazur, E. (1997). Peer instruction: A user’s manual. Prentice-Hall.

Wagner, B.D. (2009). A Variation on the use of interactive anonymous quizzes in the chemistry classroom. Journal of Chemical Education86(11), 1300-1303.

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