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Polling Systems: Creating Student Engagement

Clickers are not a new educational technology: the hand-held personal response devices have been commercially available for use in college classrooms since the 1990s and are now commonplace in large lecture courses;  they have been used in a wide range of disciplines to promote student interaction with the course content and each other. On the surface, the technology’s use  is straightforward:  students input answers to multiple-choice, true/false, yes/no questions, or numeric and alphanumeric questions that are displayed by the instructor. Beyond that, faculty say they hope that by polling students they can better engage them in the course.

With clickers “classes become an interactive experience, and everyone has an opportunity to participate, rather than the few brave souls willing to put themselves out there in front of 200+ peers,” says Dr. Mike Urbancic, UO Instructor in Economics. He added that clickers can be especially helpful for international students, who may be “even more hesitant” to participate in class.

In addition to clickers, faculty can poll students through devices such as laptops, smartphones, and tablets. For example, UO’s Interactive Media Group’s (IMG) has developed Ripple, a polling system that works with students’ mobile devices. As William Myers, IMG Assistant Director, describes, Ripple allows an instructor to “gather dynamic information about students’ knowledge in class to adjust their presentation on-the-fly” and also to “enhance small group interactions through communal responses for class conversations” (for more about the Ripple system see the “Other Options” section below).

i>clickers at the UO

iclicker2 unit in student's hand being usedIn 2008, UO adopted the i>clicker technology for use across campus, allowing the University to consolidate the purchase of student units through the DuckStore–a similar procedure to buying textbooks. Additionally, this consolidation has allowed the University to centrally support instructor and student use. For more information about how this process works, and to find additional resources, see: Using i>clicker at UO — notes for instructors.

Now with the newer i>clicker2 units, one can go beyond just multiple choice and true/false to pose numeric and alphanumeric (short answer) questions.

Urbancic has been using i>clicker2 in his EC 101, EC 202, EC 330, and EC 399 courses, because “the clickers offered an opportunity to break up the monotony, wake the students up, and get their blood flowing as they excitedly answered the questions and eagerly awaited seeing the collective responses.”

Dr. Deborah Exton, Tenured Senior Instructor (II) in Chemistry, has been using clickers in her large General Chemistry sections (between 400 and 450 students in each section) to help engage the students more in their own learning process. She says, “Students care about getting the right answers, not because of the points, which are trivial, but because it allows them to gauge their own learning.”

Not just attendance tools

clickers being used in class by group of studentsWhen UO first adopted i>clickers, many  faculty saw the devices as tools for testing student knowledge. This testing could inform their content presentations and facilitate peer instruction amongst the students as they compared answers. Over time, though, as the technology has become standard practice in more classes, some students have complained that the clickers just seem like a costly tool for taking attendance.

So how to break out of this ‘spendy’ attendance tool mentality? Instructors might

  • Collect information from the students to be revisited during a presentation, gauging their level of learning. This allows the instructor to direct the content in ways that will help the students better understand key concepts.  It also allows the instructor to work within a layer of transparency of what the learning map looks like for a class session. “I also appreciate the immediate feedback that I receive.  It allows me to immediately adjust my pace to adapt to the students’ level of understanding,” Exton says.
  • Preview and review for upcoming exams.  One can use clickers to help prep the students for an upcoming test, and ease some of the pre-test anxiety by giving examples of what type of questions might be on the test. After the test, use the clickers to help debrief by polling students on frequently missed questions; have students work together to answer the questions.
  • Ask anonymous questions about students’ values, assumptions and experiences. By using the classes’ own background attitudes and experiences, the instructor can suggest the complexity, relevance, or urgency of an issue and  bring course content into the students’ frames of reference.
  • Use the information gathered from students to demonstrate the concepts and how the concepts affect the students directly. For example, Urbancic uses clickers to introduce supply and demand.  “I hand out small items (such as pencils or Post-It note pads), elicit their maximum buying prices or minimum selling prices, and plug these numbers into a pre-prepared Excel spreadsheet which then displays their supply and demand curves and points us to the market equilibrium.”

Usually one thinks of using clickers in large lecture halls–and using strategies like those outlined above can certainly enhance the large-class experience–but at the same time, using clickers and polling in smaller classes can produce favorable results, too.  For example, I was co-instructing a First-Year Seminar of around 20 students, and by the end of the term, we were finding that various activities to elicit reflection and discussion such as “think-pair-share,” “2-minute silent/quick reflection writing,” and others were becoming redundant for the students. Indeed, no matter how much we were mixing up these strategies, we were finding ourselves in that familiar situation of certain students speaking up while others remained silent. So one week I decided that, to really mix it up, I would bring in a box of the original i>clicker units.  We posed some questions on the projection screen, and just like “that” with the new strategy and giving students a bit of thinking time to answer, we got a whole new level of discussion going. A discussion that involved students who had been quiet for weeks. So even as we encourage students to “think outside the box,” we can use a tool like clickers to experiment with our instructional approach, too!

Other options?

i>clickers are not the only option we have explored here at the UO.  With all the Smartphones, tablet devices, and laptops, some instructors have wanted to tap into these tools for creating more student interaction. One current project of note at the UO is the OpenSource Ripple project (thank you to William Myers, Assistant Director, Interactive Media Group for the following description of Ripple):

ripple-headerRipple at http://ripple.uoregon.edu is an exciting new free instructional tool built by Interactive Media Group in UO Libraries specifically for UO instructors! Ripple is unique as a polling system in a couple of ways including the different type of questions that an instructor can send out: True/False, Multiple Choice, Open Response, Numeric, Sliding Scale, Word Cloud, and Hot Spots. Even more importantly, students can access the polls on any mobile devices – laptop, tablets and smartphones that they are already bringing to class without purchasing additional equipment. Instructors have already used Ripple to not only gather dynamic information about students knowledge in class to adjust their presentation on-the-fly but have also used it to enhance small group interactions through communal responses for class conversations. If you are interested, find out more at http://interactivemedia.uoregon.edu/tools/ripple.


Polling students can be a fun and interactive way to break up a class session. But as noted above it is essential that polling and clickers be taken seriously, be well integrated into the full learning experience, and go beyond just functioning as attendance-taking tools.  The units, like any technology, are not always the answer to engaging students, but they can leveraged as powerful supplements to one’s overall pedagogical best practices and learning outcomes.

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