Active learning with voting tools

Jessica Wardman from TYMS


An interview with Dr Jessica Wardman on her use of Responseware in lectures to stimulate active learning. Her use of Responseware ties in with the York Pedagogy – Design of student work and Planning Staff-Student Contact.

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How have you used Responseware in the 9 weeks of lecture?

warm up slideEach lecture tends to start with an ice-breaker to get them relaxed and focused for a 2-hour lecture at 4.30pm on a Tuesday afternoon! And to get them to start up Responseware.

That’s a nice idea – getting them warmed up using Responseware at the start of a lecture so students are more prepared when you choose  to use it in the middle of the lecture.

Yes, it’s all set up and 2-4 times in a lecture, it comes out again.

You could even use it to give all students some insight into their fellow students, like what everyone had for lunch or something social like that.

I did something like that. I asked them what their favourite evening activity would be and 25% of them said studying. I suspect they only said that because they thought it’s what I wanted to hear.

You could increase participation and engagement by asking students to submit things they’d like to find out about their fellow students. You could feature one of these questions each week in the icebreaker or during breaks in the lecture!!

I like that idea. So, “What’s going to be the icebreaker question this week??” It would get more buy-in from the students, a great idea.

What about questions to check learning?

My lectures follow a cycle: they start with a discussion of what we’re trying to do, setting up motivation and then context for how we might go about it and what information we have and then I run through an example.  And previously, that would have been it, we would have moved on to the next topic. And the students would only get their chance to grapple with that in the gaps between lectures or in seminars. Now the cycle is motivation, context, information, examples and then getting them to do it. After checking, you can either move on, or sometimes, it gives you the opportunity to clarify misconceptions, or home in on one bit.

Do you have an example where you ask a question where there’s no ONE right answer, to stimulate their thinking and to challenge preconceptions, perhaps?

Yes, I’ve used a number line and asked people to stop me when I’ve got to the middle, and there are at least 3 definitions of where the ‘middle’ is. But once you’ve done that, when you try something similar, nobody wants to reply because they feel you’ve fooled them.

We did discuss this principle of being overt with the students about your learning intentions to gain their cooperation. That might help overcome this issue. Tell students, if you’ve worked out what you think is the right answer, try to consider another possibility. It provides them with some stretch?

Admittedly, I did try this technique in my last lecture. I make use of the famous Anscombe’s Quartet set of graphs and I ask them which of these has an appropriate regression line built in and then there’s a bit of a drum roll and it’s revealed that ALL of them have the same mean of the x values and the same mean of the y values and the same standard deviation of the x values and the same standard deviation of the y values. It makes the point that if we only look at data numerically, we potentially miss a lot of information. It’s a driver for graphing the information because the human part for pattern recognition can be useful in looking at things rather than blindly following the numbers. But this technique was used just in the last lecture.

Anscombe's Quartet set of graphs

Did you experience a decline in participation with Responseware polls?

More so with the vle quizzes – participation in these declined with the attendance at lectures, but the responses remained the same in lectures so technically, participation increased relative to the numbers in the lectures.

What do you think of the think-pair-share technique that is also used in Eric Mazur’s Peer Instruction method? Basically, you ask the students a question and they decide an answer alone (on paper or using Responseware), then they discuss this with their neighbour and repeat the polling.

This is the first year using polling so I’ve not yet used that technique but I’ll certainly consider it next year. There are aspects of statistics, surprisingly, where a discussion is worthwhile. Even in more straightforward exercises, getting the students to submit their answer and then check with one another shares understanding of different ways of getting to an answer. I try to move them away from ‘I must have the true answer, I must have approval from the lecturer as to whether I have done it right or not.”

You use Responseware to poll students so they can all SEE their misconceptions at an early stage to help drum in key learning points. You also use unusual examples to make these more memorable. Tell us a little more about this technique.

oddballThis is the bit of the course that touches on Bayes’ Theorem, an area that always confuses students. I already wanted to find some way to reinforce understanding. I always use memorable examples so students might go, “Oh, the baked bean example, or Oh! the pen example!”. By making the examples oddball, hopefully it makes it stick. The false-positives activity was set up with back to back polls. This allowed me to check what they didn’t understand and to spend some time explaining things and then check whether they had grasped the explanation through another example. It also shows them the value of participating in the polls.

Tell us about your plans to use Spaced Repetition as a way to ensure key learning points stick in learners’ heads.

This idea was triggered by some colleagues in another university who were testing whether their students had read the handbook! I’ve copied this technique to demonstrate to make visible to learners how much they recall between lectures. Currently, my example is otter-related and helps them to remember something about me, but next year, I plan to use this technique to make some concepts more ‘sticky’ for the students.


Brown, P. C., Roediger (III), H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make It Stick. Harvard University Press.

Last updated: April 2019.