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Free ‘Clickers’ for All: Using Google Forms to Survey Your Students

As many educators are, I am interested in exploring methods that provide real-time, formative assessment in the classroom. Being a teacher of such courses as microbiology, microbial genomics, and immunology, which are dense in jargon and abstract concepts, I need to be able to quickly get a snapshot of how well my students are grasping important ideas or concepts. My students also need this information in order to assess their own learning. To this end, I started exploring the use of personal response systems, or “clickers,” as a method for rapid classroom assessment. The overall trend of the SoTL data gathered on this topic indicates that clickers can be used for formative assessment, including in my own field of biology. Awesome!

Wait a second. I need to ask my students to spend more of their limited cash on something that resembles technology from ancient times and, unlike many modern electronics, has no other purpose outside class beyond being a paperweight? As someone who had to serve frozen yogurt at the campus dining hall just to scrape together enough money for textbooks and laboratory goggles when I was a student, this struck a negative chord with me.

Okay, I thought, there must be cheaper alternatives. Yes, there are. For example, one might use Poll Everywhere in combination with smartphones as a proxy for clickers. Of course, a downside to Poll Everywhere and its competitors is that the free versions of the software are often stripped-down adaptations of the full, subscription-based accounts. Feeling quite frustrated, I turned to that all-knowing entity of the modern world, Google.

Within Google Drive, I discovered an online survey tool called Google Forms. With Google Forms I am able to create surveys that my students can answer in real time, for free, using any device that is Wi-Fi compatible and has an Internet browser capable of running Google (smartphones, tablets, and laptops all work). To make a survey within Google Drive, create a new document, and from the subsequent pull-down menu, select “Google Forms” (under “More,” the purple icon). Surveys can be anonymous, or you can ask for names to track individual students’ progress over time.

The survey questions can be written in a variety of formats, including multiple choice, text, and Likert-type scale. Once the survey is complete, I invite students to participate by providing them a hyperlink via email. I send the hyperlink before each class, encouraging my students to come to class prepared and ready to participate. Alternatively, students can be invited to participate using social media such as Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.

In class, students access the survey via the provided hyperlink, and collective, anonymous, results are shared in real time via the “Summary of responses” choice (use the pull-down menu within the Responses tab of Google Forms). Prior to class, I open the desired Google Forms document (the actual survey) within Google Drive and make sure that the survey is accepting responses (Responses tab). In addition to documenting the collective data from a survey, the software also archives individual responses as an Excel worksheet.

My use of Google Forms as a cheap, easy-to-use, device-friendly alternative to clickers has been yielding some successful results. First, my students look forward to getting the links and love how they can use devices that they already have in order to participate. Preliminary, indirect measures of learning, in the form of post-course student surveys, indicate that the use of Google Forms is helping my students learn better. Finally, I have recently started to use the software not only to ask content and concept-type questions but also to track whether my students’ perceptions about important, course-related issues change as the semester progresses. For example, in my microbiology course I use Google Forms surveys to assess whether student attitudes toward the problem of antibiotic resistance change over time.

Here’s some advice from Google if you’re interested in getting started with Google Forms: https://support.google.com/docs/answer/87809?hl=en.

Reference
Preszler, R. W., Dawe, A., Shuster, C. B. & Shuster, M. Assessment of the Effects of Student Response Systems on Student Learning and Attitudes over a Broad Range of Biology Courses. CBE-Life Sci. Educ. 6, 29–41 (2007).

Michael J. LaGier is an assistant professor of biology at Grand View University. He welcomes your questions or comments at mlagier@grandview.edu.