The ins and outs of Polling @ McGill
By Kira Smith
Formerly called “clickers”, Polling @ McGill is a technology platform McGill instructors use to ask students questions in class. On February 15, 2019, the Office of Science Education and Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) invited twenty instructors to meet to discuss strategies for using this technology, which may be particularly helpful in large classes. Lawrence Chen (Faculty of Engineering), Catherine-Anne Miller (Faculty of Medicine), Laura Pavelka (Faculty of Science), Kenneth Ragan (Faculty of Science), and Pallavi Sirjoosingh (Faculty of Science) outlined their strategies for engaging students through polling.
Lawrence Chen, a Faculty of Engineering professor, began by affirming his dedication to polling, saying he would “never not use polling”. He sees it as a prime opportunity to promote active learning and takes every opportunity to use it with his students, both undergraduate and graduate, in small and large classes. Lawrence frequently asks students challenging questions that they may not be able to fully work through during class time, giving them the opportunity to think about the concepts over time.
Pallavi Sirjoosingh, an instructor in the Department of Chemistry, uses polling to conduct reviews with students, both as they enter the classroom and throughout the term. Both Pallavi and Laura Pavelka, fellow instructor in the Department of Chemistry who initially encouraged Pallavi to begin polling, noted the benefits of polling students while they filter into large lecture halls. During the first five minutes of class as the students get settled, they use that time to “get students thinking about chemistry and the content from last class.” To facilitate reviews for major assessments, Laura will often spend an entire class asking polling questions, while Pallavi will frequently use a poll-repoll strategy to check students’ understanding. This involves asking students a question to gauge their understanding, engaging them in a learning activity, then asking the same question to determine if their understanding has improved.
In addition to facilitating review sessions and encouraging peer learning with poll-repoll strategies, Ken Ragan, professor in the Department of Physics, uses polling to assess participation and gather feedback from students. The information he collects about the needs and expertise of his students enables him to tailor his teaching accordingly. He also uses polling to gauge student perspectives on major assessments. For example, once students hand in an assignment, and before they receive their grades, he uses polling to ask questions like “Was the assignment fair?” and “How happy are you with the assessment?”. He then uses the real-time responses to these questions to spark a discussion in class.
Catherine-Anne Miller, faculty lecturer at the Ingram School of Nursing, takes a similar approach to reflexive teaching practice through polling. She keeps students engaged by “ensuring that they’re with her” and getting feedback on the direction of the course. She also uses polling to test out potential exam questions, determining if they make sense to students. Unlike Ken, Catherine-Anne ultimately found that grading participation using polling was too time-consuming. Nevertheless, she has found that her students are still engaged in class and have conveyed that they very much enjoy polling.
The instructors also pointed to the challenges they faced with the technology. The primary issue that arose was dealing with technical barriers, such as challenges posed by the PowerPoint integration and limitations placed on response types.
As Adam Finkelstein, TLS Educational Developer, reminded the group, TLS offers consultations and support to instructors using polling.