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Teachers often go into classes hoping that their questions will lead to vigorous and thoughtful discussion, but they usually leave disappointed that they only elicited a sea of blank faces.
While it can be tempting to blame the lack of response on student lethargy or lack of class preparation, the issue has more to do with group dynamics. A class is a social entity, governed by social and psychological dynamics. When we speak in a group, we care not only about what we are saying but also about what others will think of us. We don’t want to look foolish in front of others. Cold-calling on individual students only puts students on edge, redirecting psychological energy away from the topic.
Instead of struggling against group dynamics, work with them: students who clam up in front of others won’t shy from an anonymous poll. Plus, by using a polling app, you can project real-time results in class, showing students where they stand compared to classmates and helping kick-start discussion.
Using polling effectively requires asking the right questions. Polling should not be used to quiz students on the reading. Even if most students do not get the answer correct, that doesn’t mean that they didn’t do the reading; they might just not remember the answer. A better use is to initiate thinking on a topic by asking a simple question to which all students can venture an answer. For instance, a math teacher could open a lesson on probability by asking the Monty Hall problem. Most students will get it wrong—and want to learn why they did.
Another option is to ask students for their position on something. For instance, a lesson on civic duty might begin with the “stoplight question”:
Do you run a red light when it’s late at night and you see no other cars?
Most students will defend their positions—which gets them engaged--and their answers will draw out the underlying principles of civic duty.
Polling also elicits a far wider range of responses from students than cold calling, broadening the scope of the discussion. With discussion questions, the first response often determines the course of the discussion by serving as the basis for subsequent answers. Students with ideas that don’t fit may not speak up. With polling, by contrast, each student gives their own suggested starting point. The instructor can thus explore one direction until the discussion slows, then return to the poll responses to start down a new path.
Polling is also an excellent way to gauge student comprehension. Few students will admit confusion when the teacher asks the class whether anyone has questions. Anonymous answers provide a truer picture of class understanding.
Each of these apps has a free plan that will suit most teaching needs:
Feel welcome to share how these apps work for you in the comments.