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A common lecture activity involves asking questions periodically to gauge students' understanding and check their attention levels. Polling the whole class—asking questions where everyone participates—changes the typical classroom dynamic where only a few students have a change to answer. Polling can be done with or without technology, such as:

  • asking students to raise hands as you restate each answer option
  • providing students with different colored index cards at the beginning of the term that they hold up to answer questions during each class session
  • requiring students to use either a classroom response system "clicker" (e.g., i>Clicker) or a web-based service (e.g., Poll Everywhere).

Identify in advance questions that you will use to check student understanding during your lecture and activities you want to facilitate based on lecture concepts. While you can conduct on-the-fly polling activities, even if you use technology, it is a good idea to plan ahead and allot time for each activity. Engaging students after every ten or fifteen minutes of lecture is a good lecture-to-activity ratio. Whenever possible, align the activity with learning outcomes for the class or class session. Facilitate the activities in class and record the results so you can analyze them later. You can make adjustments to your lectures based on what students demonstrate they learn and retain over time.

Using technology for polling has pros and cons:


  • You can store student responses over the entire term, import them into the learning management system gradebook, and in some cases even use them for assessment purposes. If you do not use technology for polling, make a note of the actual count (small class size) or a rough count (large class size) of the responses for each question on your laptop, smart phone, or a piece of paper.
  • You can collect some demographic information at the beginning of the term (e.g. gender, class level) and use that to cross-tabulate responses (i.e., data slicing) at any time afterward. Also consider collecting demographic responses that are relevant to a particular lecture (e.g., views on a popular topic). Then you can pull up a cross-section of student responses, such as "Let's see how men and women in the class responded compared to men and women in a national survey," or "We can see the international students think quite differently about this than U.S. citizens who are the third generation or greater, with first and second generation citizens in the middle."


  • It is important to note that not every student has a mobile device. Therefore, if you want to use a mobile app, you may need to check with your students to make sure they all have a device. Otherwise, you should alter the activities to allow pairs to submit responses or require all students to procure clickers for your class.
  • Of course, students are acutely aware of being asked to buy something for class—whether it is a textbook or a clicker—and then only using it for attendance or not being asked to use it for weeks at a time. So, if you require clickers, be sure to make this a regular part of the classroom experience!
Using Polling to Prompt Discussion

Polling can be a great way to stimulate discussion about a topic. Here are two ways you might use polling to begin a conversation:

  • Think-Pair-Share: Think - Students prepare a response to a question, problem, unsolved equation, or prompt. Ask them to share their answers by raising hands or index cards, or entering a response using clickers or mobile devices. Pair - Tell students to turn to a neighbor and discuss their responses (e.g., why did they answer the way they did, compare how they solved the equation). Share – ask students to enter new responses via clickers or other polling strategy. Solicit some of the pairs to give reports on what they decided together if you want to discuss why a large percentage of students entered an incorrect response.
  • Stimulate discussion: If you use clickers, or online polling tools for real-time online class meetings, students can answer questions honestly without making their peers aware of personal beliefs or choices. For example, in an election year some instructors might ask questions related to issues that will appear on local, state or federal ballots.

Concept Maps

A concept map is a diagram or graphic organizer designed to show how different concepts are related. Concept maps are also called mind maps or idea maps. Concepts can be represented by free floating words, words enclosed in bubbles or boxes, icons or other symbols. Relationships can be represented by lines (with or without arrows) that connect the concepts. You can use other factors, such as location on the diagram or font size to show importance of concepts, or proximity to show the strength of relationships. Note: While color can be used, it should not be the primary means to convey information to accommodate students who may be partially or completely color blind.

Since concept maps are designed to show connections, there are a number of benefits you and your students get by using concept maps:

  • connect new information to previous concepts from your course or background knowledge students are expected to have when they begin your class
  • provide a simplified or well-organized view of complex information
  • review concepts from a lecture or unit by representing the information in a different way
  • ask students to make concept maps to show as a formative evaluation strategy
  • encourage creative thinking
  • use as a memory strategy
  • support global learning preferences

Concept maps can be made individually or collaboratively, so you can create them in advance, model mapping as part of your lecture, ask students to make them in small group discussion to support learning, or assign them as a fill-in-the-blank map to complete in class or as homework.

If you have not made a concept map before, you can open a blank text document and put them side-by-side. In the text document, create an outline of the information you want to put in the map, then recreate it graphically using a concept map tool.

  • Graphic representation of learning outcomes: On the whiteboard or on a computer with a projector create a concept map that shows the learning outcomes for your class, along with the different ways students will show they have reached them—i.e., related assessment strategies. If you want to provide this as a resource, you can use Microsoft SmartArt or concept mapping software to create the graphic representation of your learning outcomes.
  • Concept map lecture: Use a screencast or the online presentation tool, Prezi, to lecture from a concept map. When it is time to record or give your lecture, start by showing the entire map and zoom to different parts to discuss them individually. Zoom out to the whole map again to re-establish how each part connects to the whole.
  • Group stakeholder map exercise: Individually or in small groups, assign students different roles from a case or scenario (e.g., Civil War roles might include slaves, slave owners, abolitionists, government officials and soldiers from Northern and Southern armies, etc.). In response to a prompt (e.g., "How would you define the goals of your stakeholder group after X happened?"), have students write ideas from their stakeholder perspectives, using Post-it notepads and markers. While they do this, draw a concept map on the board with the prompt in the middle and bubbles for each role you assigned. Then ask them to bring their individual Post-its to the whiteboard and place them around the bubble for their role. As a group, you can use whiteboard markers to show connections between ideas. You can use an online tool, such as CMap, to conduct the same collaborative exercise outside the classroom.
Concept Mapping Tools
  • - online tool allows you to create up to 3 maps for free
  • CMap - free downloadable tool for creating and sharing maps – site contains research publications and white papers
  • Gliffy - online tool

For a downloadable guide on concept maps, check out the infographic from the Scholarly Teacher:

View directly, or right-click to save a copy.

Engaging Students in Zoom Sessions

Give students ownership:  Students don’t just have to be participants within the Zoom session; they can also serve in facilitation roles. For instance, students designated as discussion leaders could synthesize the week’s Camino discussion forum posts and identify key themes for further conversation. If students are posing questions in the Zoom chat for clarification or discussion, one student could serve as the moderator and summarize the top questions that were raised.

Make the most of the chat function:  You can invite students to use the Zoom chat function in a number of ways. You might incorporate small breaks into the session where students can jot down their questions in the chat box. You could also ask all students to write a response to a question posed at the beginning and/or end of the class session (for instance, “What was the most important concept you learned from our last session?” or, “What point is still confusing after today’s session?”). Used in this way, the chat can serve as an entry or exit ticket, and you can also save the chat if you want to review students’ responses later or give them completion points.

Invite nonverbal feedback:  Besides the chat function, Zoom also offers two other interactive tools through the polling feature and the nonverbal feedback feature (be sure that both of these features are enabled in your Zoom settings). Polling questions need to be set up before you hold your Zoom session, so these can be a good way to check students’ understanding of course concepts. If you want to ask questions on the fly, the nonverbal feedback feature allows students to raise their hand, as well as respond to a question with a yes/no button and thumbs up/thumbs down. You could use these options if you wanted to ask an agree/disagree question or check students' understanding of an explanation. For more information on how to use these features, and others, in Zoom, check out this Zoom for Education webinar recording or sign up for a one-on-one Zoom training session with Media Services staff.

Use breakout rooms:  Speaking in a Zoom breakout room is often less intimidating than answering a question in a whole-group Zoom session, so utilizing this feature is a great way to provide students with opportunities to discuss and apply course concepts. Breakout rooms can also be used in conjunction with other Zoom features; for instance, you could ask students to answer a Zoom poll question and then discuss their response within a breakout room. Since you can't get a bird's eye view of students' breakout room conversations in the same way that you can in a physical classroom, it's important to have clear instructions and protocols for sharing out to ensure that the conversations are productive. As you plan your Zoom session, consider what will happen before, during, and after the breakout room conversations (see this helpful guide which covers each of these components), as well as how you can make these expectations clear for students. Using Google docs and Google forms with breakout groups is one way to provide students with a reference point and a mechanism for recoridng and sharing out their thoughts (see some related tips for using breakout rooms effectively here). 

Additional Resources

Bruff, D. (n.d.). Classroom response systems ("clickers"). Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.

Carnegie Mellon University. (n.d.). Using concept maps. Eberly Center.

Cavanagh, S. (2019, March 11). How to make your teaching more engaging. Chronicle of Higher Education.


Page authors:
Dr. Kevin Kelly, Lecturer at San Francisco State University
Dr. Rachel Stumpf, SCU Faculty Development Program Manager

Last updated:
July 29, 2020