The Modern Middle East: Using Poll Everywhere in a History Survey Course

The following is a guest post by Sarah Shields. Professor Shields teaches history at UNC concentrating on “The Modern Middle East.” She shares her ongoing experiences with teaching a large survey course on her blog, Teaching the Modern Middle East.



I had been on research leave for months, but I still couldn’t stop thinking about how to conduct a big lecture class in a way that was consistent with my teaching philosophy.  A colleague told me about clickers; and I was intrigued with the idea of using a classroom response system, but I couldn’t figure out how it would fit into a history course. What kinds of questions could I ask?

Over the years, I have come to question the large lecture course as a way to teach the skills we want history students to acquire. We can tell them things, show them how to explain what happened in the past and why it matters, but the very act of lecturing seems antithetical to teaching critical thinking and analytical skills.  The best we can do is show them how we, the historians, arrived at our conclusions.   Science educators concluded long ago that students only learn science when they actually do science. I wanted to give students an opportunity to struggle with the kinds of issues historians face, to engage them in the process of figuring out how to decide which sources we rely on and which narratives we emphasize.

After talking with UNC’s Center for Faculty Excellence, I decided to try Poll Everywhere. Although I knew that it could not create a whole new kind of critical learning structure, I hoped it could keep students engaged and help them think about the big questions–instead of just learning the desired answers.

As I have progressed through the semester, I have discovered ways I can use this technology to give students more of a voice in the classroom.  Here’s what I’m doing:

Each lecture, I use Poll Everywhere at least twice:

  • At the beginning I take attendance (their phones are registered) by asking the students to respond to a multiple choice trivia-style question about the Middle East
  • At the end I post a slide for the students to text their questions.  I have been getting more questions–and more complex questions–this semester than ever before, often questions that anticipate the next lecture.

As I rethink my old lectures, I have tried to focus more on big issues than on narrating events:

  • I often ask students to consider options or alternative ways historical actors might have dealt with things in the past; e.g. how could the Great Powers have reconciled their colonial interests in the Middle East with their promises of self-government? This allows the students to contemplate the options as they would have appeared in 1918, and to bring the things they learned earlier about the Ottoman Empire, the Middle East, and the Great Powers to bear on the “current” problem.
  • Sometimes, I ask students to talk with each other in pairs or small groups, then text their responses to Poll Everywhere.  The students seem fascinated with reading each others’ responses, gaining a sense of alternative possibilities and having an opportunity to consider new ideas.  
  • When I post student responses on my blog, I use wordle. In one question, I asked my students to figure out how Great Britain could reconcile two apparently conflicting promises contained in their mandate for Palestine after World War I: Arab self-government and a national home for the Jews.  Their responses:


Other Findings

  • Students’ participation through Poll Everywhere has also emboldened them to speak out without using the technology–though volunteering to speak in front of more than 200 students remains a daunting prospect for many.
  • The success of Poll Everywhere in my classroom has encouraged me to seek out other technologies to enhance engagement and learning for my students.
  • The new technology has not created the equivalent of a lab for history students, but it is making my students engage more actively with the problems of historical interpretation, analytical reasoning, and the critical analysis of sources.


I welcome suggestions for other ways I might use this technology in history courses.