Using polls in seminars and lectures

Illustration: colourbox.dk

Earlier this week, I attended a seminar online (c’mon people, let us ditch “webinar” from our vocabulary), and both main speakers used realtime polling (Mentimeter and some other, similar tool that I cannot remember the name of). The first speaker used it to ask questions like “how often do you use [database]” etc. to figure out how familiar the participants were with the resource he was talking about. However, even when it turned out that something like 70 percent said that they used the database very often, he continued with his presentation as he had planned, seemingly unmoved by the data he just had received. The second speaker used it differently. In his presentation, he startet to show a slide with the talking points he had prepared, but underlined that it was not an agenda. He then asked the participants to go to the polling and range the talking points by what we were most interested in. Based on that information he arranged the taking points in order by interest and started with what most people were most interested in – just to be sure that if he got short on time, at least he had talked about the most important thing. To me, this was very interesting.

Polling is seen as a way to engage the participants, or students as they most commonly are when I am teaching, as well as a way to break up the lecture and to gain some understanding of what the students are thinking and feeling about something. Polling, when used well, can also help with communication and to a small extent level out the power imbalance between the lecturer and the students. In the example I started with, I felt more engaged and empowered with the polling for the second speaker. Even though the subject that I was most interested in was not the one that most participants chose on top, it was among the ones that he managed to get through in the first 30 minutes.

The experience from this week made me think about how I use polls. It is something that I often use, particularly with bachelor’s students for some reason, and I have used it for years, in physical as well as online sessions. In the beginning, I used it more as an ice-breaker than anything else. It was a way to get the students warmed up and to sort of “set the tone” for the class. I still use it as that, but the questions I am using are somewhat different. In the beginning, it was more like “Have you ever taken courses at college/ university level before” (for first-year students) or “Have you hear of EndNote before?”. Then I started using it more to gauge their emotional state or feelings around academic writing, like “Write down the first three words you think about when you hear “academic essay”?” (or similar) and then the words they entered formed a word cloud. I felt like this gave the students an opportunity to maybe “vent” some frustration or be honest about the process. Usually it became quite clear that, even though words like “exiting” or “interesting” came up, the majority of words were like “stressful”, “laborious”, “difficult” and “exhausted”. The most recent polls I have used went a little further, and I asked questions like “What do you think will be the easiest of this assignment”, and I gave them options like “selecting the theme”, “formulating the research question”, “searching the databases”, “choosing the articles I want to use” etc. These polls were usually given at the start of the lecture, and in the most recent examples, I used the results to decide on what to use more time on. I didn’t rearrange the talking points, like the second speaker at the seminar this week did, because there is a certain sequence to my talking points and it will not make much sense if I jumbled it all up. However, I did tell the students that I would only lightly touch upon the things that they had not marked as challenging or difficult. I also used this with the word cloud. When I came to the points that were emphasised by the students I used more time on those, and I encouraged them to ask more questions or to post them on a Q&A- slide in the poll for those who did not want to ask in class (physical) or in the chat box (online).

While I think polling, as any other technique or method, has its limitation as to learning outcomes etc., I do think that it can be a useful tool to get the students more engaged. The lecture as a format has its faults, this has been established pretty conclusively, but seeing as it is often the only (or at least one of few) pragmatic option(s) when you have the sole responsibility for 150-200 students, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to drop them. I am still testing different ways to use polling, and I keep trying to come up with the good questions that give me information I can use. The two speakers at this week’s seminar chose to use polling in very different ways, and I believe only one of them worked well. I’ll keep that in mind for my next session.

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