If you’re a hardcore John Hughes fan, you’ve probably seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) a zillion times. Thus, you probably know that Ben Stein’s character, an economics professor, never actually says “Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?” Instead, he says these lines separately (while taking attendance, he says “Bueller? Bueller?” then asks “Anyone? Anyone?” later in his lecture). Okay, I’m digressing. The point is, saying “Bueller?” has become a classic way to fill in an awkward silence when no one responds to a question (at least “classic” to those of a certain age…Not likely your current students). Although the film focuses on high school, college professors are also familiar with students’ glassy eyes and expressionless faces when asked a question. That is if they are looking at you and not staring in the direction of their crotches as they text under their desks.
Student engagement is tough. Professors have a lot of competition for students’ often limited and easily distracted attention. Also, some students are legitimately introverted and answering a question in class would cause a panic attack. So what’s a professor to do?
Ask your students to open their laptops and get out their phones, of course!
Say what?? Yep, get your students to use their devices for responding to prompts, taking quizzes, offering personal experiences, and sharing opinions.
One of the best tools for this purpose is Poll Everywhere, an online audience response system that allows you to quickly gauge student engagement and understanding using their computers, tablets, or smart phones.
Poll Everywhere allows students to respond anonymously to a variety of question types, such as multiple choice and open-ended. The anonymity is particularly beneficial when asking students to share opinions or experiences that may be embarrassing or sensitive. For example, I teach a course on interpersonal communication and we cover taboo topics like infidelity, deception, and violence. Many students are not willing to raise their hand when I ask “How many of you think humans are hard-wired to be polyamorous instead of monogamous?” But I can pose that question using Poll Everywhere and the anonymity encourages honesty, which sparks fantastic discussions.
In addition to stimulating discussion, Poll Everywhere is great for testing assumptions. Each student enters our classroom with their own perceptions of the subject matter. Uncovering their attitudes, expectations, and biases can help us counter “flawed” understandings and encourage them to consider other perspectives. For example: “Who is more likely to be the perpetrator of sexual assault? (A) a stranger (B) an acquaintance (C) an intimate.” Although this is not a question about their values or experiences, students often are embarrassed to be wrong, especially in front of their peers. So, once again, the anonymity of the polls is advantageous.
Once students respond to a poll, their answers can be displayed in a few different ways. I recommend considering the type of question you’re asking when choosing a display style. For example, with open-ended prompts, I like to use the word cloud feature. Words that are repeated show up in larger font, indicating greater popularity. This can allow you to gauge the opinions in the room.
Like most applications, Poll Everywhere offers a variety of plans and the more you pay, the more options you get. But I find the free option to be robust enough for use in the average college classroom. The free version allows up to 40 responses, which tends to be sufficient for the typical seminar-style class. But if your classes are larger, you should investigate other pricing options, such as having the students pay (after all, $14 per year is much cheaper than those iClickers).