October 4th, 2010

Using Polling and Smartphones to Keep Students Engaged


It’s an age-old problem. You want to make the most of every minute you have with your students, but it’s been proven that most people can only retain about 20 minutes of content in our short-term memory before we have to reflect on it in order to move it to our long-term memory or it will be lost. Add to this the violently condensed attention span of the general population and anyone hoping to provide a content-rich education in the time slots of traditional classes faces an uphill battle.

Teaching with Technology column

Polling provides an ideal way to both keep a class’ attention and provide a reflective activity to move information into long-term memory. Plus, it’s remarkably easy. Free websites allow you to set up polls that students take by submitting their answers via text message or on the Web. These polls are a wonderful way to engage students in the material and keep their interest. Best of all, the results appear in real time so students can see changes as they come in.

One good use of polls is to gather information about a subject before it is covered. This is especially helpful when the subject concerns information that students might not want to make public with a show of hands. For instance, a teacher could introduce a discussion of cheating on exams by asking students in a large lecture to indicate if they have every cheated on an exam. This could be used to demonstrate that cheating is more common than people think. A science instructor can ask students to guess the results of an experiment before it is conducted to generate thought and interest in the outcome. Forcing students to take a position not only creates reflection, but also commitment to results. Everyone wants their position affirmed.

Another option is to ask students for their opinions and use the results as a way of initiating a discussion on the issue. Or you could ask a simple factual question that you know most people will get wrong in order to demonstrate a widespread misconception.

Polls also can be used after content is presented as a means of generating reflection on the issue. These can be simple factual questions that demonstrate whether the students understood the material, or higher level questions that will help them to retain the material.

Using smartphones to conduct polls
While many instructors consider smartphones the bane of teaching—causing distraction and even cheating during a test—polling turns the technology into a teacher’s advantage by engaging students with the content.

In this screencast, I demonstrate how easy it is to use polling software. Watch it here »

As usual, I welcome your comments, criticisms, and cries of outrage in the comments section of this blog.

Poll Everywhere (http://www.polleverywhere.com)
Unlimited polls with up to 30 respondents on the free plan.

Flisti (http://flisti.com)
Super easy polling system. No signup required.

MicroPoll (http://www.micropoll.com)
Good for creating a poll to embed in a blog or some other website.

Vorbeo (http://vorbeo.com)
Another system for creating a poll to embed in your website.

BuzzDash (http://www.buzzdash.com)
Quite a few presentation formats.

TextTheMob (http://textthemob.com)
Free plan allows for up to three questions with 50 responses.

John Orlando, PhD, is the program director for the online Master of Science in Business Continuity Management and Master of Science in Information Assurance programs at Norwich University. John develops faculty training in online education and is available for consulting at jorlando@norwich.edu.


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  • Max Knauer

    I'm anxious to setup and "test" polling in public meetings.

  • Joe

    I give many presentations and wanted to try this during one of my presentations so I set up a website to do online polling in real-time and it worked great. The audience could take the poll using their smartphones. It kept the audience engaged and interested, waiting for the next poll and poll results. The audience interest was much better than previous similar presentations I gave.

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  • paul

    Dr. Orlando,

    In the future, you should do more research and site sources. There is a bit information in this article that is blatantly wrong. A professor of mine is using your article as an APA resource for a paper we have to submit and it's painful to write knowing that I'm putting bad information into my paper.

    The short term memory does not hold 20 minutes of content. I don't know where you got that piece of info from, but it is incorrect. You can't just say, "It's been proven," without citing your sources. That's irresponsible, especially for someone with a doctorate.

    Respectfully yours,

    • Frances


      Perhaps you should CITE a few of your sources to support the content of YOUR reply. After all, what's good for the goose…


  • Paul


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  • Ben

    Worth checking out ParticiPoll (http://www.participoll.com) which lets you drop audience polls straight into your existing PowerPoint presentations.