In the traditional stand-and-deliver, information-download approach to teaching college-level science, students are often expected to diligently—and quietly—take handwritten notes in order to memorize the ideas presented in class, and repeat those ideas back to the professor on exam day.  In stark contrast to this common model, innovative faculty trying a myriad of ways to implement student-centered, active-learning approaches.  As one component to student-centered teaching, faculty will readily agree that professors need to find ways to make classroom communication two-way.  In other words, professors need ways to collect students’ ideas as a natural part of the learning process.

Getting students’ ideas from the students’ brains into the professor’s brain is important for several reasons.  First, from an educational theory perspective, much of the student-centered learning movement is based on the persuasive arguments forwarded by David Ausubel.  His thinking was that successful teaching cannot be independent of what pre-existing learning experiences and motivations students bring into the learning environment with them before class starts.  For professors who want to be student-centered, they need to know what their students know so that instruction pace and depth can be specifically modified for students.

Find out what the students know and then teach them accordingly.  -David Ausubel

The second reason is that a teacher needs to know if students are understanding the ideas being taught.  If students do not understand the first part of a larger, complex idea, they probably will struggle unnecessarily with connected, tertiary ideas.  Professors need to know if students are on board before they move on to new ideas that are built on earlier ideas.  The only way to know if students are ready to move on to the next concept, is to get information from them.

The third reason has to do with students buy-in.  From a student’s perspective, students rightfully too often feel like a science class is done “to them” rather than “for them”.  Actually, this disappointing student perspective is spot-on if their professors drone on and on without regard to whether or not students are keeping up, are able to relate and understand the ideas, or even if students are actually in attendance.  In my opinion, a class learning environment should probably look and feel different if it is taught to 20 graduate students as compared to 200 undergraduate students—and not just how many seats are in the room.  The bottom line here is that students will have more ownership in the learning process if they believe their professor is trying to help them learn, which requires a two-way communication pathway.

But how might a professor using active learning teaching strategies go about doing this—especially in a large-lecture class with hundreds of students?  There are several techniques available to professors, ranging from high-tech to low-tech.

Starting with the most high-tech tools, some high-dollar facilities and planetariums have classroom seats with a series of voting and polling buttons hard wired into the arm rests.  Much more common are wireless, hand-held personal response devices—most widely known simply as “clickers”—that allow students to respond to questions posed during class.  Responses are recorded and a frequency histogram is generated for the professor.  Most textbook company sales representatives are happy to sell clickers along with textbook adoptions, and are one of a great many resources on how to implement clickers.

If you want to take advantage of devices students already have, there are numerous options for students to use their smart phones.  The specific names of polling programs and apps change so quickly that any listed here will probably be out of date between the time I write this and the time you read this. Students can text their answers to a classroom specified number or use one of many different apps to submit their answers (PollEveryWhere is currently a common one).  The highest tech version of these allow students to use their smart phones during class to submit graphs, sketches, and equations in addition to simple numerical or alphabetical answers (LearningCatalytics has been aggressively pushing the envelope on this interactive system).

Moving from students electronically submitting their answers to be recorded to instead simply showing professors their answers, students can also use their cell phones as an electronic bill board to display their answers for professors to see.  For instance, students can hold up their screens and display a giant letter “A” (search your smart phone’s app store for CAPERcard) or submit photos of their hand written work to a common photo-bank folder.

The last two options are decidedly low-tech.  One is to take piece of paper and legibly write the four letters A B C D, which then students can hold up and show their answers.  A slightly higher effort version of this is to print out colored pages of this before class, as colored squares are a little easier to see in a large classroom than letters alone.  You can find one of many examples of folding A B C D voting card of this online.

Finally, professors can solicit student ideas by asking students to raise their hands in response to various questions.  This is the least preferable of ways to get students’ ideas because students are apt to look around the room and answer the same way the majority of students answer.  To mitigate for this, asking students to signal their answer by closely holding to their chest 1-finger, 2-fingers, 3-fingers, or 4-fingers, allows for students to vote anonymously and simultaneously, and not be influenced by their peers.

Whichever way you go, the underlying goal here is to have two-way communication between professor and students during class time rather than having only 1-way information download.  This is probably the best, first-step moving away from a teacher-centered classroom toward a student-centered classroom.

Tim Slater, University of Wyoming,

Suggested Citation: Slater, T. F. (2017, February). Get the vote out: New options for polling and soliciting students’ ideas. Society of College Science Teachers Blog, 2(7),


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