Online polling platforms – not just for online teaching

By Dr Louise Robson, Senior University Teacher, School of Biosciences, University of Sheffield. Louise was awarded her NTF in 2021. You can follow Louise on Twitter @Louisescicomm. This blog follows up from her previous article for us, on lecture capture and inclusivity.

Although I am an experienced academic, I am always reflecting on my teaching, looking for ways to improve my support for students, particularly as my philosophy is to always challenge them to ensure they reach their full potential.  To support my students I use a mix of traditional lecturing, flipped activities and active, problem-based questioning in classes. Central to this delivery is the use of digital technologies, using these to provide a supportive and inclusive learning environment (whether in the physical classroom or more recently online) that works even for large groups of students. 

Two key technologies I have championed are the use of lecture capture recordings and anonymous online polling platforms, and both of these have really transformed the experience of my students. In this blog I want to focus on the use of online polling in active learning sessions (either in class or online). 

I have been using active learning approaches for several years, getting students to complete flipped work in advance of class and then making sure they are active participants in that class, consolidating their knowledge, understanding and ability to problem solve.  When COVID-19 hit, the only difference for me was that I flipped more of my content, and introduced more synchronous active learning sessions, running these online instead of in the classroom.  My approach to online delivery was shaped by the temporary online pivot paper I co-authored (1), which highlighted lots of key top tips for individuals and institutions.  

In either my physical or online classrooms I set questions for students to answer, with a focus on application and problem solving, rather than recall.  I encourage the students to discuss answers with their peers, so that they benefit from each others’ knowledge and understanding.  Key to the success of this approach is providing a low risk environment, where students can get things wrong without worrying that others can see their mistakes.  This is where the use of anonymous online polling platforms becomes critical, as these allow anonymous answers. Students can have a go at a question, and I actually actively encourage my students to answer even if they are not sure they are correct.  This is because I can then see their mistakes, and provide direct feedback to help with their learning.  Students have told me active learning sessions were “a great way to engage and enabled me to test my knowledge; “allowed me to see where I had gone wrong”.  For online sessions, I simply blended my polling platform (Echo360) with Blackboard Collaborate, and students could answer questions that I shared anonymously with the online class, getting feedback on their answers; “my favourite online classes; very interesting and captivating; key feeling of being connected;  asking how we are doing with an emoji; brought positivity;  open line for communication”.  

Evaluation of my active learning approach shows that 94% (in class) and 89% (online) of my students agreed that my online active learning sessions helped them assess their knowledge.  94% (in class) and 83% of students agreed sessions helped them apply their knowledge, figure 1.

Image shows a frequency distribution histogram, illustrating students' responses to the question 'the interactive questions helped me to engage in the lecture and improved my understanding as it helped me to apply my knowledge straight away. It increased my interest in the topic. Bllack bars show students in class, and black bars students online. For both groups, the percentages of strongly agree and agree responses are considerably higher than neutral, disagree or strongly disagree responses.
Figure 1: Students were asked if active learning sessions (either in class or online) helped them apply their knowledge and understanding to problem solve. Key: SA = strongly agree; A = agree; N = neutral; D = disagree; SD = strongly disagree.

At the start of 2021/22 I transitioned back into the classroom, delivering the same number of synchronous teaching sessions as pre-pandemic.  However, I really wanted to keep aspects of teaching in the pandemic that have enhanced my practice.  I have not gone back to what I did previously, but instead am using more flipped lecture captures and asynchronous workbook activities.  I am delivering some traditional lectures (posing questions at the end for students to reflect on), and running both in class and (where it is more effective) online active learning sessions.  Key to this more complex approach is to ensure that I clearly explain my approach to students, using Google site module handbooks to cover the running order in the module, what sessions are asynchronous (flipped) or being delivered synchronously, and how to use the resources in an effective way for their learning.  I also cover the reasons for the active approach, highlighting to them the results from my own research and the pedagogical literature on the value of active learning.  So far 91% of students participating in my current research project have agreed (once again) that my active approach has helped them apply their knowledge and understanding.  

As I reflect back on our online pivot paper (1) and my current practice, it strikes me that lots of the tips in here for online teaching are really just top tips for teaching (either in class or online)!   I am certainly still drawing on the guidance in this document to help me plan how digital technologies can continue to enhance my teaching, whether this is in class or online.  

1. Nordmann E, Horlin C, Hutchison J, Murray J-A, Robson L, Seery MK, et al. (2020) Ten simple rules for supporting a temporary online pivot in higher education. PLoS Comput Biol 16(10): e1008242.

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