Teaching Tip: Writing Effective Student Polling Questions

We’ve talked quite a bit about good tools for student polling during class (known as “student response systems” or “clickers”), but a technology is only as good as the ways in which you use it. Sure these systems offer interesting structures for questions (from multiple choice to drawing graphs), but what’s more important is the types of questions you are asking and the ways in which you integrate them into the lecture structure.

There are two categories of questions you can ask: formative and higher-order thinking. Formative questions include:

  • Recall: Recognize a fact, perform a simple calculation. These questions are good for checking that your students are retaining information presented in your lecture, or in previous lectures.
  • Conceptual Understanding: Check that students understand basic concepts and address common misconceptions with classifications, explanations, matching, etc.
  • Application: Apply concepts, equations, etc to novel scenarios using previous examples as models.

Higher-order thinking questions include:

  • Complex Application: Applying multiple concepts and novel solutions to scenarios.
  • Critical Thinking: “Best answer” rather than “correct answer” questions in which several options are true but only one can best fit the content of the question.
  • Student Perspective: Demographics, opinion, and interpretations questions. While these questions may not inherently use higher-order thinking, they can be used to spark class discussion.

Formative questions are best to use with topics that you are concerned your students will have difficulty mastering or that often lead to confusion and misconceptions. However, they are only useful as a means of checking in with students on whether or not they understand the essentials. They do not enhance student comprehension, and generally do not lead to class discussion.

Higher-order thinking questions, on the other hand, have been shown to enhance student learning through active engagement with material. These can also be used to generate discussion in a common model often referred to as “peer instruction.” Students give individual answers, and then discuss the answer in small groups. They then can change their answer based on the group discussion, having gained a better understanding of the material from the explanations their peers provide. This might be followed by a discussion with the entire class if there still seems to be confusion over the answer. Vanderbilt Unversity’s Center for Teaching offers suggestions on a number of different models for incorporating student polling including repeated questions and contingency teaching. With any model of student polling, it is important to identify ways in which they will complement and enhance your teaching rather than becoming just a nifty way of using technology.

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