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Polling is a method used in classrooms and group learning settings where students are asked, through a show of hands or a clicker, to answer a yes/no or multiple choice question. In some cases, the responses being polled are generated from students who were cold called or participated voluntary immediately prior to it. In other cases, the options are generated by logical necessity (as with yes/no questions). In yet other cases, the instructor selects the options as with the usual multiple choice question design.

Polling differs from cold calling in that all students get to contribute to the discussion, but each has a reduced limelight. Further, the goal is generally to get a sense of the overall consensus, not to diagnose individual student thoughts.

Related methods

Question types

The following questions are well-suited for polling:

  • Yes/no or true/false questions
  • Multiple-choice questions (MCQs), particularly those questions where the options form a natural partitioning of the possibility space
  • All multiple choice questions (if using clickers or equipped with another easy way for people to convey options en masse).

Parameters relevant to individual polling instances

Open versus closed polling

There are three types of polling:

  • Polling that is open at the individual level: Examples include "show of hands" polling. For this type of polling, the responses of every individual are visible to every other individual (though some may need to turn around to see other responses). The overall aggregate response can also be approximately inferred.
  • Polling that is closed at the individual level, but open at the aggregate level: Examples include polling using clickers that is immediately followed by a reveal of how many people chose what option.
  • Polling that is closed at all levels: Examples include polling using clickers without a reveal of how many chose what option. A less technologically savvy option is for students to hold up pieces of paper with these answer option written on it in big font, facing the instructor. The instructor can see everybody's answer options, but students cannot see each other's answer options.

Sequential versus simultaneous polling in case of multiple options

  • Sequential polling for a multiple-choice question means that the options are presented one by one and students are asked to convey, by a show of hands, whether they agree with a given option.
  • Simultaneous polling for a multiple-choice question means that all students convey their answer option simultaneously using a clicker or by holding up pieces of paper.

Note that for yes/no or true/false questions with no implicit "don't know" or "don't care" option, the distinction between sequential and simultaneous polling is not that important, though it may still be significant due to framing effects.

Sequencing of options for sequential polling

For a MCQ with three or more options, sequential polling allows individual respondents to adjust their answers based on the response to previous options, particularly in case of open polling (at the individual or aggregate levels). The direction of this effect may differ based on the situation. In some cases, people may be reluctant to agree with initial options, while in others, people may be overenthusiastic about initial options.

Inclusion of a "don't know" option

An explicit "don't know" option is helpful, particularly for yes/no and true/false questions, rather than assuming that those who fail to raise their hand for the "yes" option must endorse the "no" option.

Multiple rounds of polling

For simultaneous or sequential polling, it may be possible to do multiple rounds of polling. Each round of polling may be followed immediately by the next. In the case of open polling, this allows each individual to factor in what his/her peers think into his/her next response.

Prelude and interlude

The following are some possibilities for the prelude to polling, the interlude between polling rounds, and the post-polling phase:

  • Asking an individual (selected through cold calling or voluntary participation) to publicly explain a particular option. This can be done for multiple individuals. In some cases, individual responses to free response questions may be used to generate the options used for polling.
  • Giving individuals some time to think about the question.
  • Giving people some time to discuss the question with their peers.
  • Checking desk work.
  • Reviewing a relevant concept publicly.