Our brains are impressive computers, but they only have so much available memory, so every new piece of information we encounter is viewed through a relevance filter — the equivalent of our brain asking, “do I need to remember this” or “will this be on the test?”

Thus, when we are exposed to new theories and concepts, our brains decide whether to retain what we just learned… or to overwrite it as soon as something more interesting comes along. This means that if learners aren’t actively engaged with their lessons, everything you’ve taught them will eventually fade away. What a tremendous loss (and a waste of effort)!

Quick Engagement – the Key to Long-Term Retention

Donna Walker Tileston, author of Ten Best Teaching Practices: How Brain Research, Learning Styles, and Standards Define Teaching Competencies, cites research which suggests that adult learners could discard freshly-minted memories (like a newly taught concept or theory) as quickly as 20 minutes after encountering them unless learners are engaged with those inputs and therefore commit them to their long-term memory.

One way to quickly and effectively engage learners about what they have just learned is through the use of innovatively-designed polls and surveys. A study of the use of polling in a Flipped Classroom (FC) pedagogical model suggested that learners definitely enhance their cognitive functions through this method, and they engage more with the course materials.

These tools offer many benefits, such as:

  • sparking students’ curiosity about a topic they’re about to engage with
  • establishing the presumptions of the student body, which may then be disproved or corrected
  • prompting learners to actively consider what they have just learned before they respond to a poll or survey questions about recent topics
  • generating critical thinking and debate among the learner community about the poll and its results
  • subconsciously creating the conditions for memories about the subject matter to move from short-term, to working, and finally to long-term memory

So, how can you use these tools to generate learner interest?

Tips for Creating Engaging Polls and Surveys

Since a poll (in this context) is often a survey of the audience’s presumptions, one of the primary goals of a good pool is to pique the takers’ curiosity about the results. (If you’ve ever watched Family Feud, you know how much debate and surprise even the simplest survey results can generate.)

When creating a poll or survey to use in a classroom setting, consider the following tips:

Poll students before they learn a new lesson as a way to test their preexisting knowledge, presumptions, or biases.

Poll students mid-lesson to remind them of key factors they’ve just learned, and to test their ability to extrapolate where that information might lead.

Poll students immediately after completing a lesson as a way of testing their short-term memory, as a means of conveying additional context, or as a set-up for the next lesson.

For example, if you’re teaching a safety training module, you could start by asking your learners how many of a certain type of accident — say, fall-related injuries — happen in their industry each year. Provide a range of 3 to 5 answers, ranging from low to high rates of injury. This question requires your audience to extrapolate a guess based on their own experience multiplied across the scope of their awareness, and it sets the stage for the severity of the topic they’re about to study.

Then, once they’ve learned the top three causes of lost-time injuries in their industry, you could ask them which of those three injuries they think is the most common. By doing so, you’re reiterating a recently-learned fact (the three main causes of workplace injury) which will enhance their ability to recall that information later. You’re also compelling them to actively consider how prevalent each of those incidents might be, which may help them to actively recognize potentially dangerous situations in their own workplace.

Finally, at the end of the lesson, you could ask your learners what they think the average recovery time is for a fall-related injury. In this case, the accuracy of their guesses (or, if this information was clearly stated in the training, the accuracy of their responses) is a secondary concern; the primary goal of a question like this is to anchor the severity of such an injury in their minds, so they’re more likely to remember the cost of an injury as a deterrent to unsafe behavior. Thus, your poll serves less as an attention-generating tactic and more as “shock value” punctuation at the end of a critically important lesson.

Some other considerations for designing polls:

  • Keep your polls short – 3 to 5 multiple choice questions, a single “Yes/No” or “True/False” question, or single sentence essay feedback – so learners see the polls as a welcome exercise and not a daunting test
  • Writing your questions and possible responses with a sense of humor (when appropriate) may help learners look forward to engaging with your polls
  • Is there only one obvious answer? If so, your poll is functioning as a check-up on learner preparedness
  • Are there multiple seemingly reasonable answers? If so, your poll is functioning as a conversation-starter
  • Providing instant feedback to learners on the results of a poll or survey shows them how they compare to their cohort
  • Withholding poll results from your learners and then revealing the results later during the relevant portion of the lesson will create anticipation, increase learners’ attention, and anchor that fact more vibrantly in their short-term memories
  • If applicable, you can publish a “most innovative poll response” for essay-formatted polls and give recognition to that respondent

For more tips on designing effective poll questions, check out this list of 10 phrases to use or avoid.

How Can CourseArc Help?

With our new polling block, you can quickly and easily add interactive polls to your courses! Students can vote on a topic or select what they believe is the answer to a question, and the results are updated in real time. This is a fast, fun way to boost student engagement while accessing their prior knowledge.

Checkbox image via the League of Women Voters on Flickr.