10 active learning strategies that connect teachers with students

Dr. Tang is one of over 200,000 educators worldwide who use Poll Everywhere to promote active learning in the classroom.

Poll Everywhere is a classroom response system that engages students on devices they already have: their phones. Educators create and embed live, interactive questions into their lectures, and students respond in real-time from the privacy of their phones. The results are immediate.

Below are just a few of the wonderfully inventive strategies teachers and professors alike have produced using interactive questioning. Each example actively engages students in the learning process, and includes a link for further exploration.

“I looked for ways to engage students effectively and probe their understanding of a particular concept. When I saw Poll Everywhere, I loved it.”
– Dr. Yan Tang


Use multiple-choice questions to kickstart classroom debates

Christopher Robertson helps his first-year law students at the University of Arizona understand the nuances of law with a technique called cascading persuasion. If too many students answer the question incorrectly, Robertson will not reveal the correct answer. Instead, he has each student turn to their neighbor and debate whose choice was correct. When the two reach a consensus, they find another pair of students and plead their case.

“Law students can easily go an entire semester passively attending class [only to] discover on the final exam that they have not grasped the concepts covered in class,” said Robertson. “I find that polling in class encourages active student participation and uncovers misunderstanding of how to apply the law.”

Eventually the entire class will agree on which answer is correct. Most of the time their consensus is correct, but on the rare occasion it’s not, Robertson says it’s an easy fix.

Law school example poll

Introduce students to different topics and concepts with a gallery walk

With a gallery walk, large sheets of paper or posters are placed on the walls of the classroom, each displaying a different talking point, such as an event in history, a specific policy, or simply just one word. (For instance, in a diversity workshop at a DC-based university, the facilitators place large post-its around the room with one word on each. Examples of the words are: oppression, privilege, and inclusion.)

Students visit each station in small groups and talk about each topic amongst themselves. In some versions of the activity, students rotate around the room individually. For the diversity workshop, mentioned above, attendees go around on their own and, on the large post-it, write down the first thing they think of when they see each word. This can be done in small groups, or even solo. Either way, everyone comes together in small groups at the end to share what they spoke about or what was written on each page.

Another great way to use a gallery walk is to have the students create the stations and evaluate each other. In one 11th grade history class, teacher Sarah Caufield split her class into teams. Each team chose a topic related to Ancient China — religion, goods and trade, language and writing, or calendar systems — and created an educational poster for it. They then put their posters up around the room and circled the room to read and evaluate their peers’ work.

High school student at desk

Quickly crowdsource possible solutions from a myriad of options

Dr. Paul Gordon and his University of Arizona medical students sort through patient histories and pull out pertinent details using Q&A polls. Here’s how it works: the class starts by reading through a medical history transcript together. Dr. Gordon then presents a Q&A poll asking which items from the transcript need further explanation.

Students respond with various factoids from what they read, and then upvote responses from their peers. Together, they crowdsource a list of the best submissions. “[Poll Everywhere] gave students much more opportunity to get involved in the discussion,” said Dr. Gordon. “Plus, it was anonymous, so they weren’t holding back.”

Compared to writing out each response on the blackboard, Dr. Gordon says this method is a lot quicker and helps eliminate redundancy.

medical school activity example

Let the student become the teacher

In this exercise, often called Sage and Scribe, students split into pairs. One assumes the role of educator (sage) and the other becomes the note taker (scribe). The teacher then assigns a topic, directing the sages to explain it in detail to their scribes, who take detailed notes. When time is up, the students switch roles.

This learning strategy is great because teaching others is proven to not only increase a student’s understanding of the material, but also helps them retain that newly acquired knowledge. But it’s not just the sages who reap the benefits. The scribes do, too, because taking notes also helps students learn. (But take note: handwriting is a better memory aid than a computer.)

Students at a table writing in notebooks with a laptop open

Transform any image into an interactive exercise

“I find there’s universal engagement in [interactive] quizzes, and it creates a real buzz amongst the students.” This quote comes from Dr. Vikas Shah, consultant radiologist at the University Hospitals of Leicester. Dr. Shah uses Poll Everywhere to keep as many as 100 students engaged during his seminars.

One of his go-to active learning strategies is to present students with an interactive radiology image (such as the one below). Students are then challenged to tap the specific part of the image where they believe the abnormality lies. The correct answer is then revealed – along with several green pins indicating where everyone tapped – and the class discusses the results.

With almost universal smartphone and tablet ownership among his students, Dr. Shah feels that adapting his teaching style to use live polling is key to continued positive feedback from his class.

clickable image x-ray poll

Turn multiple choice questions and agree/disagree statements into a physical poll

In this four corners activity, students are up and out of their desks, and teachers will ask a set of questions, each of which has four possible answers, each assigned to a different corner of the room. When the question is asked, students move toward their answer (corner) of choice. The teacher can also read off statements and assign each corner a value: strongly agree, agree, disagree, and strongly disagree.

Either way, when everyone has decided on their spot, students in each corner discuss why they chose that answer. Then, the entire class discusses together. It’s a great way to not just get students moving, but to get them thinking strategically about their answers. Plus, it gives teachers a chance to gauge where their class stands.

Even if the students fall victim to groupthink, choosing the same answer their friends do, they’re still involved in the learning process and exposed to both the correct answer and the discussions being held.

Presenter asking for questions

Help students discuss sensitive topics using anonymity

San Marino High School teacher Peter Paccone created a safe space for US Government students to discuss the 2016 presidential election using live polling. “Poll Everywhere is great for discussing these sensitive topics without public scrutiny,” Paccone said. “People respond on their phones or online instead of in front of their peers.”

During ‘Presidential Election Wednesdays’ Paccone and his students talked through issues raised during the campaign. The class weighed in on everything from ‘Should voters be required to show photo identification in order to vote?’ to ‘Do you think the United State should build a wall along its entire border with Mexico?’

After the election ended, Paccone sent around a final poll asking students to rank the Election Wednesdays’ activities. The results will inform his 2020 lesson plan.

Election process example activity

Help students distill complex topics into single words

Creating a word cloud live with your students opens up a lot of active learning strategies. One of my favorite examples comes from grade school teacher @NSmithScholars who uses them to help her students review what they learned that week. She calls it Flashback Friday. This exercise gives everyone a chance to demonstrate what they’ve learned, while also signaling what needs additional review.

Live word clouds can also be used to challenge students to summarize complex topics into one or two words. Doing so can help focus classroom discussions around a book, poem, or essay. It’s also a great way to help students prepare to write their own reports or research papers. @GinaChomic provides the example below asking people to summarize a recent news article.

Flashback Friday example poll

Related: 10 education word cloud activities that get students talking

Use surveys to engage students after class is finished

Surveys are a little different from the other items on this list. They’re not an individual question or activity that the class completes together. Instead, surveys are a series of questions that are answered at the student’s own pace.

Most educators I’ve spoken with use surveys for post-class assessments. They use surveys like homework. Students respond to the questions within a survey on their own time before the next class. That class then starts with a review of the completed surveys, which helps inform what will be discussed that day.

Alternatively, teachers and professors will use surveys to collect feedback on the classes themselves. Students have multiple days to finish the survey, and the results are send straight to the educator’s Poll Everywhere account.

Survey activity creator

Adjust your lecture on the fly using live feedback

Gabriel Grant and Jason Jay are the founders of Breaking Through Gridlock, an interactive workshop that enables participants to discuss the undiscussable. Together, Grant and Jay help people develop the tools needed to have healthy, productive conversations with others.

A key step in this process is having each participant reveal someone they’re struggling to connect with, and how they currently feel about that person. The responses are always fascinating (and sometimes a little heartbreaking). Bosses and politicians are common, but friends and family will pop up as well. The audience then aires their collective grievances towards these individuals through the privacy of their phones.

This exercise smartly uses Poll Everywhere to foster intimate reflection on a broad scale. Everyone can see all the response, but their identities remain hidden. Grant and Jay then offer feedback and advice to the group based on what they’re seeing.

Breaking Through Gridlock example activity