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Engagement Through Technology

“Too many students come to class and haven’t learned from the homework.“

“My students are so different from each other. But I can’t afford the time to teach them each differently.“

“My colleagues tell me, when my students take their courses later on, they seem to have forgotten too much of what I taught them.“

There are no magic solutions. But some familiar technologies (e.g., word processors, math tools, cell phones, surveys, online databases, online discussion) can be used to incrementally alter the way your students learn. And each step can be easy, quick, and low-risk.

Polling-Based Strategies (e.g. cell phones, clickers)

If students in your program don’t seem to remember content, or can’t apply it, as well as you’d like, try this polling- and discussion- based strategy called interactive engagement (IE). Ask students challenging questions that require thought, poll them, display a summary of their answers,ask students to pair up and explain their reasoning to each other, and then poll them again to see if the class’ thinking has changed as a result of all those discussions (it almost always does). Using a polling device such as a cell phone, clicker, or laptop helps make this work. Research has shown that IE often deepens students’ understanding.

What is Interactive Engagement? Why consider it?

  • “I can’t tell if my students really understand what I just explained. I only have time to call on 2-3 students before I move on.”
  • "I'd like to get all of my students to answer questions in class, instead of just the two or three students who always raise their hands."
  • “I would like to ask questions that are too sensitive for hand-raising. My students would respond anonymously. But how can you do that in a classroom?”

Briefly, an instructor asks students a thought-provoking question. All students respond simultaneously (usually with a vote for one or more options from a list; sometimes by writing a word or phrase). To respond to your poll, students text from a cell phone, click on a handheld device (“clicker”), or use a laptop. Three advantages of using polling devices:

  1. Each student answers while not knowing how any other student is responding.
  2. The faculty member can instantly see, and display, the pattern of student responses (40% of students chose ‘A’ but 60% chose ‘B’; let’s talk about that).
  3. Faculty have the option of giving micro-grade points for correct answers, to encourage student thought and participation.

If there is much disagreement, pairs of students explain their reasoning to each other, ordinarily for just a minute or two. Then they are polled again. It’s this set of simultaneous discussions, involving every student in the course, that provides Interactive Engagement with much of its teaching muscle.

As a way of improving and deepening learning, IE is unusually effective and well-researched, unusually easy to try, free, simple, and relatively low risk.

Examples of Interactive Engagement in Use

  • Predicting the results of science experiments before the demonstration is done. The demonstration (e.g., combining two chemicals under certain conditions) is described in advance, and students choose from a list of descriptions of what will happen. The options might be described in words, pictures, or videos. A correct prediction should require thinking about several different things that the student has been taught.
  • Students rating each other’s presentations. In a history class that was also teaching information literacy, teams made presentations. After each presentation, students in the audience used clickers to rate the credibility of the sources cited by that team. More…
  • Teaching students to think with science: Dan King (Drexel Chemistry) has demonstrated good results when students are asked, “To solve (a stated problem), which of the following six equations would you need to use? Check one or more.”
  • Using polling to get students thinking about plagiarism, and what’s wrong with it. (Click here for a Derek Bruff column on this topic.)

View a 12 minute video showing Interactive Engagement using clickers; and choose “Using Clickers Effectively.” The video answers some practical questions too.

See our references for examples from many disciplines.

What Kind of Polling Devices Can I Use?

The short answer is to contact IRT ( and ask for advice.

Primer: There are three kinds of devices that students use to respond to polls:

Any cell phone or other device that can send a text message.

ldquo;Clicker”: a handheld device created specifically for audience pollling. You can borrow a set from IRT (which has about 30) or from Prof. Dan King (who has several hundred). You’ll also need a simple receiver, which easily plugs into the USB port of your computer. To use clickers, students must be in the same room as the instructor. Cell phones or laptops can be used from anywhere, an advantage for blended or online courses.

Laptop: Create a one or two question survey (poll) with any survey tool. Give the students the URL. Use a free service such as to convert the long URL of your survey into a URL short enough for students to copy accurately from the board or from a handout. As they answer the survey question, you can display the results.

Some systems allow students in a single class to use any of these devices (e.g.,; TurningPoint).

Interactive Engagement with Polling, Step by Step

One Approach to Interactive Engagement

  1. The instructor asks a thought-provoking, multiple choice question, one that requires more than memorization or simple calculation, e.g.,
    • Here is a chemistry problem. Which two equations are most important for solving it?
    • What was the single most important cause of the War of 1812?
    • You’ve just heard a student presentation. On a scale of 1-5, how persuasive was the evidence? Be prepared to explain your reasons.
  2. The instructor usually creates answers in advance. The ‘wrong’ answers are selected to each reflect a different, common misconception. Or, sometimes, instructors will begin by asking students to volunteer answers. Once enough have been collected, they’re used as options for the poll.
  3. All students use a polling device (e.g., text from a cell phone, clicker; laptop) to answer the question simultaneously. Their answers are recorded and displayed graphically (e.g., 20% chose option “a,” 30% chose option “b,”...).
  4. If that first poll shows disagreement, then the instructor asks students to pair up and spend a couple of minutes explaining their reasoning to one another. This discussion, engaging all students simultaneously, is the major source of IE’s teaching power.
  5. After the discussion is ended, students are polled again, answering the same question as before.
  6. The percentage of students choosing each answer is displayed to the class.
  7. A final discussion may cap off the cycle, which may have lasted a total of 10 minutes or so.

How can I most easily write (or find) good questions for Interactive Engagement?

Click here for a 3 page article on writing good polling questions by Derek Bruff.

How can I tell if it’s working?

Several decades ago, research in physics education revealed that even some "A" students failed to understand fundamental concepts. However, when IE was tried, learning improved substantially (see Hake, 2005 in references below).

To see what your students really think about your course’s interactive engagement and polling, here is a set of questions you can use to develop a feedback form, along with some rules of thumb for this kind of inquiry. If you’d like help in creating the form and analyzing the data, contact contact us via e-mail (, or by telephone at 215-895-4973.

Suppose you find that some students aren’t taking this seriously. IE doesn’t work for a student who isn’t paying attention. To help assure student engagement, some faculty award fractional points toward the final grade based on whether students participated and (where appropriate) answered correctly. The more students who are engaged, the harder it is for the minority to ignore what’s going on.

On the Value of Exchanging Email with Students. Thoughts from Faculty at Other Institutions

  • For me, sending short positive messages makes the entire mentor/student relationship more meaningful.
  • We [give students] e-mail addresses for both faculty and encourage...further subject inquiry.
  • I have created an account on Yahoo that students can use to send me e-mails from. This way I do not know their identity and allows them to speak their mind.

These quotes are from the “Seven Principles Collection of Ideas for Teaching and Learning with Technology.” Increasing faculty-student contact is one way to improve engagement, and learning outcomes. The Collection contains quite a few ideas for using technology to deepen the faculty-student bond.

Students Collaborate in Research by Using Social Bookmarking

When Prof. Chris Dede teaches his Harvard course on educational technology to 50 grad students, he assigns students to scan Internet resources for material related to the course. Each student uses a social bookmarking service (Diigo) to tag items that Dede and other students should see; the label is the name of Dede’s course. Dede, his students (and anyone else) who uses Diigo and ‘subscribes’ to that tag (the name of Dede’s course) will see the citations as soon as they are tagged.

Dede’s students usually generate about 1000 citations during the term, ‘about two/thirds of which were previously unknown to me,’ remarked Dede on a recent visit to Drexel. Other faculty who have tried this over the years have had similar results. When Prof. Dede then assigns some of those articles in his course, students feel empowered. And when students tag articles that are irrelevant to the course, it provides a clue to important student misconceptions.

PS. Dede’s students are so good at digging up new research that quite a few students who took the course in previous years still read those Diigo tags from today’s students in order to keep up with the field.

References to the Research

For more on Interactive Engagement, see this classic research article on the technique’s impact on 6500 students in 62 different introductory physics courses, by physicist Richard Hake.

As the article explains, Interactive Engagement in science is always heads-on and often hands-on. It involves challenging questions and plenty of what Eric Mazur calls “Peer Instruction”: students simultaneously talking in pairs or small groups, explaining their reasoning.

For theory, tips and techniques in using polling devices effectively, including examples from many disciplines, we highly recommend Derek Bruff’s book, Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments. Hagerty Library has two copies. To see a recording of a talk by Derek on ‘agile teaching’ using polling.

For a different way to search for what you need, try Derek’s blog on classroom response systems. Use the index on the right side of the page to zero in on what you need.