Submitted by: Carol Damm, MEd, Instructional Designer

Polling students, whether in a face-to-face or online class setting, can be an effective pedagogical tool. I don’t refer to opinion surveys that students receive to assess a particular course. Rather, the polling that I refer to may consist of a single question or a group of questions that the instructor will put forward to assess students’ comprehension of a topic, to survey students’ opinion in real time in order to collect a reaction, to solicit direction for that day’s work, and to even vote on an issue.

There are several advantages to polling over simply asking a question or directing a question to an individual student. When asking a question out loud to the whole class, most commonly, a few students will raise their hands while others will sit quietly. You cannot tell if the quiet students know the answer and are just shy or nervous or if they don’t know the answer. They may be daydreaming, and even if they aren’t they will most likely not be fully engaged while their classmate replies to the question. The alternative of directing a random student to answer the question can increase the stress level in the class for both the student answering as well as other students. (Now, I think stress can be a positive force but it has been shown to inhibit students’ ability to process information (1).)

However, an instructor can take that same question and ask the class as a whole for a response, and with the use of an online polling system gauge how well all of the students comprehend the lecture or the readings. The dynamics are completely different when an entire class responds, as opposed to an individual. Immediately, every student feels some ownership in the problem and its solution, an important aspect to the learning process that increases accountability towards comprehension. When the answers or replies are anonymous, students feel more comfortable participating. And, equally important, the instructor can better gauge students’ mastery of the materials outside of exams or other work, which can inform what to address in that particular class or the next.

Some instructors have taken the polling process to a more advanced level by incorporating it into the entire class dynamic. As an example, Eric Mazur, PhD, a Harvard professor of physics, teaches with a method that he calls Peer Instruction and insists that students appreciate this learning process and that they engage more deeply with the topics. Dr. Mazur uses polling to introduce a problem, then, without revealing the answer, has the students discuss amongst each other the correct answer. Rather than describe in more detail his approach, I recommend that you watch the following presentation by Dr. Mazur. (It starts around 35 minutes into his talk).

There are a variety of resources used for polling. In a future post, I will discuss a number of these options.




1. Vogel, S., Schwabe, L. (2016) Learning and memory under stress: implications for the classroom. Nature Partner Journals: Science of Learning. Published online: June 28, 2016 at

Thoughts on Teaching

October 18th, 2016


The posts you will find here have been written to support you in your teaching. We will highlight resources available to you and your students here at Brandeis; you’ll find strategies you can try in your classroom; read reflections from colleagues about innovative practices they’ve implemented; and learn about upcoming programs and offerings from the Center for Teaching and Learning.

If you want to join the conversation, please send us your post! You can submit your thoughts on teaching via email to

We look forward to learning with you!