Teaching Resources

Polling: Overview

Resource Overview

An introductory guide to active learning with polling.

Polling in the classroom describes a tool that instructors can use to anonymously or semi-anonymously gather information from students. Polls can be both high tech (PollEverywhere, iClicker, Socrative) and low tech (having students raise colored pieces of paper or their hands). Instructors can use polls for many different pedagogical reasons such as to ask students about their background knowledge, personal opinions or experiences; to predict the outcome of an experimental demonstration, or to test their understanding of course material. The anonymity of these tools allows students to feel more comfortable participating in classroom discussion and answering honestly in medium to large classes. As such, polls can be utilized as an important formative assessment tool. Formative assessments are used to gauge where students are in their learning at different points during a course. These types of assessments also allow instructors to respond more directly and efficiently to student needs.

Below, we describe different types of polling activities that instructors may use to engage with students as well as best practices for using polling in classes.

Types of Polling Activities

See our page on different types of polling questions for additional ideas on polling questions and activities in your class.

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 high-tech 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.


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.


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.

Current & Controversial Issues

Poll questions are useful when teaching a sensitive or controversial topic in which commonly students bring their own outside beliefs and perspectives into the conversation. 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.

Best Practices

Polls are a versatile and useful tool for engaging students in a wide array of classroom settings. As with any new technology or active learning strategy using polls can feel daunting to weave into your course plan. When deciding to use polling, you should consider how this technique will integrate with your teaching persona, teaching methods, and the learning objectives you have for your students. Effective polling usage hinges on appropriate facilitation. Think of polling questions as jumping off points for instructor-led clarification about a concept, student-led discussion about how to solve a problem or classify a concept, class-wide discussion of content, and group updates on in-class work. As you start the process of including polling questions in your teaching, be mindful of the time required for adequate facilitation to achieve your desired learning goals.

Pedagogical Considerations

  • Consider the learning goals you plan to achieve by using polling systems. These are great active learning tools and can be used to accomplish learning goals in all disciplines. Before you begin using polling system in your classroom be sure to, identify your primary goal(s).
  • Consider what kinds of questions, activities, and facilitation style will best help you achieve your desired student learning goals. Polling can be used for many classroom purposes including: gauging student understanding in real time, facilitating discussions, tracking participation, and encouraging students to reflect on material.
  • Consider how you will assess student learning with polling in your classroom. It is important that you consider your purpose for utilizing polling as a tool for student learning, the purpose of the questions you will be asking, and the amount of time that you will give students to respond to questions, when deciding if you will grade responses. You can assess student learning gains by considering the distribution of responses in the moment and using student answers to foster class discussion or clarify a misconception. Or, you can assess learning after the lecture has ended and use responses to shape future lectures. Polling can also be a convenient way to gather attendance data while engaging your students with the material through simply monitoring the number of questions a student answers without concern for accuracy. Alternatively, polling can be used to provide students with a grade based on the accuracy of their responses. This is useful if you want to provide students with an indication of how much they know in this moment.

Student Communication

  • Before classes start add a section to the syllabus that describes why you plan to incorporate polling and any technological needs students must have to engage with your polls.
  • On the first day of class share with students why you have decided to use polling in your class and explain to them how polling can support the well-researched benefit of active engagement on student learning. Take a few minutes to show students how to use the polling software, this is easily achieved by asking a few introductory questions (“Where are you from?”, “What year are you?”). Also communicate with students about how you plan on using polls as a grading or attendance tool. 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?)
  • In the first week of class if you plan to use polls as a grading mechanism, we suggest that you upload the data early and with frequency in order to provide transparency and ensure that student data is appearing properly. This will reduce any possible student concerns.
  • Throughout the semester use polls often to help you and your students become comfortable and confident in utilizing the technology. This will also reinforce to students that polls are an important component in your course and in their engagement with the material. As with any active learning technique, starting this process early is critical in order to indicate to students that you value their engagement with the activity.

If you have any questions or would like to set up a consultation to discuss your plans to utilize polling in your classroom please contact us at ctl@wustl.edu. Some content on page was developed in conjunction with Dr. Shaina Rowell.

Have suggestions?

If you have suggestions of resources we might add to these pages, please contact us:

ctl@wustl.edu(314) 935-6810Mon - Fri, 8:30 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.