Increasing Student Engagement by Using Poll-based Teaching

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Chitraang Murdia, Physics

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2021

Remote teaching has come with its own challenges for everyone. One major challenge faced by most instructors is the lack of student participation and engagement. Traditional teaching styles like lectures and supervised problem-solving sessions have not been successful at mitigating this issue. More interactive strategies like think-pair-share work better but they are not ideal for teaching large classes over Zoom, especially for courses in physical sciences. In my capacity as a GSI responsible for teaching discussion sections, I wanted to come up with a better teaching format that encourages students to attend and participate in the class.

I came up with a new teaching format to address this issue as a part of my final project for the Graduate Remote Instruction Fellows Program in Winter 2020. Instead of asking students to solve a complex descriptive-answer problem, I give them a logical progression of multiple-choice questions. Each series of questions is adapted from a textbook problem. The students are given time to solve each question and are anonymously polled for their answers. If most of the students answer a question correctly, I am assured that they have understood the underlying concept and can apply it to solve problems. In this case, I give out the correct answer and ask a volunteer to explain their solutions. Knowing that their answer is right, students feel confident about sharing their solutions and the class becomes more interactive. If a significant fraction of the class gets the answer wrong, I review the concepts and explain the solution in detail. Since we spend more time discussing topics that are harder for the students, they have more incentive to attend the class. A collateral benefit of using these sequential questions is that students get to see a step-by-step approach to arriving at a solution rather than a complex, almost miraculous solution. This helps first-time learners gain more familiarity with the concepts and their applications. 

I have used this technique for teaching discussion sections in Physics 105: Analytic Mechanics in Spring 2021. Over the course of the semester, I have made a few changes to the style. Before starting with the series of questions, I display the textbook problem and give students the option to solve that problem and compare answers with us if they prefer that format. Oftentimes, I ask students to predict the next multiple-choice question to help them build more intuition about solving descriptive-style problems. After a question involving a particularly difficult concept, I give out a similar question to reinforce that concept. If students perform well on this question, I am assured that they have understood that topic. These changes have helped me better align my teaching with the student learning objectives.

After teaching the first section using this format, I asked the students their opinion about this format and the response was positive. I also asked them to submit their feedback using an anonymous feedback form at any point during the semester. Several students said they preferred this format because they got to solve manageable problems, and this has helped them in understanding the concepts and applying them to solve homework problems. One student asked me to review the theoretical concepts before solving problems. During class, many students agreed with this suggestion, so I have included a short review at the beginning. Over the course of the semester, attendance has been stable, and the participation rate for polls has been close to 90%, which is another indication of this teaching style working well for students. The class also performed well on the first midterm exam, which is also very reassuring. Lastly, I was contacted by Kristen Nelson, a teaching consultant at the GSI Teaching & Resource Center, about sharing my final project with another graduate student who was working on solving problems with students in engaging ways. This has greatly boosted my confidence in this teaching style, and I look forward to getting more feedback from my students in the end-of-semester evaluations.