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Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


Archive for the 'Electronic voting systems' Category

Voting with PollEverywhere

Jessica Gramp18 February 2013

graphIf you are interested in polling your students, but don’t have access to Electronic Voting Handsets (either installed in a lecture theatre or lent to students) you could use PollEverywhere instead.

PollEverywhere is an online tool that lets you set up polls that students can answer, either by sending a text message or using the Internet on their laptop or smart-device. It is free for  for up to 40 responses per poll, so for classes larger than this the free option may not be suitable. There are Higher Education plans available for those who need it.  Try it out here: www.polleverywhere.com


Online-only tools (with no text messaging capabilities) exist, but the ones I have looked at have several issues that would prevent me from using them myself or suggesting them to others.

[edit: list of systems to avoid removed]

If you are a UCL staff member you can contact E-Learning Environments (ELE) for further information about electronic voting.

Clickers, clickers, everywhere

Matt Jenner2 October 2012

This summer E-Learning Environments have installed clickers into three teaching spaces at UCL, the Harrie Massey in the Physics Building, the Cruciform LT1 and Christopher Ingold Auditorium. Each room has every seat kitted out with a voting handset and the front teaching PC has a USB receiver and the software installed. Read on for some images and educational musings to chew on…


Association of Learning Technology Conference (ALT-C) Day 1

Jessica Gramp11 September 2012

In the first plenary session for the ALT-C conference this year, Eric Mazur from Harvard University spoke about how student’s brain activity slows during lectures. The highlighted area to the immediate left of the circled lecture periods in the graph below shows that student’s brains are more active during sleep than during traditional lectures. Eric argues that analysing classroom data is essential to improving teaching.

Eric Mazur presenting a graph showing the brain activity of students during lectures (circled)

20120911_101657So how do students actually learn?

Information transfer is the easy part. The hard part where students need to understand the concepts is often being left to students to do on their own. Eric Mazur realised that most of his own “ah-hah” moments of understanding came outside of the classroom. He now uses voting handsets to involve students in his lectures. After voting he asks students to find someone who disagrees with their answer and then try to convince their neighbour  why their own answer is correct. His collaborative approach to teaching ensures students stay engaged during lectures.

Women in particular thrive in a collaborative environment as opposed to a competitive one, so they perform better when he involves them in his lectures.  He also encourages students to work together to complete their homework.

Lecture demonstrations are not as effective as students doing the activity themselves because students may make incorrect assumptions about what the demonstrator has done to achieve the results. Asking students to predict the outcome of the demonstration, record their observation of the demo and then discuss whether they correctly predicted the outcome of the demonstration with their peers leads to a better understanding of the core concepts.

The reason for this is that “the brain stores models not facts.” You need to give students time to re-adjust their models in the lecture. Otherwise students are more likely to continue to believe in their incorrect models. This effect is known in psychology as cognitive dissonance. Predicting, explaining and discussing the concepts makes a significant difference in the ability for students to absorb the correct models. The graph below shows a significant improvement in understanding by those students who had predicted the demonstration results and an even higher improvement by those who also discussed their predications after the demonstration.

Eric Mazur showing the improvement in results as students are asked to predict and discuss the results of a demonstration

2012-09-11 10.57.48

It’s difficult to teach students who have the wrong model, because teachers who understand the correct model find it difficult to understand where these students are coming from. Asking students to show their working out helps teachers to understand their misconceptions. Instead of just marking incorrect answers as wrong and leaving it at that, Eric Mazur argues that teachers should concentrate on understanding the thinking behind the incorrect answers. That way they can help students to re-adjust their thinking to incorporate the correct models.

Read more: Classroom Demonstrations: Learning Tools or Entertainment?

Eric Mazur also asks students to tell him what they find difficult or confusing from their readings before the lecture. He asked students to provide him with at least 2 concepts they found confusing and also some feedback on why they found the items confusing. If they found nothing difficult they had to provide him with two examples of what they found interesting and why. He then adapts his lecture to address the areas students found most difficult to comprehend.  This method is known as just in time teaching. You can find out more about this method in the book Just in time teaching: blending active learning with web technology (Novak et al., Prentice Hall, 1999).

Eric Mazur’s research shows that confused students are around twice as likely to understand a concept than those who claim they understand it2012-09-11 11.19.24

In Eric’s study, those students who mentioned they were confused by a concept were roughly twice as likely to demonstrate understanding than those who said they understood it, so “confusion doesn’t correlate with misunderstanding.”  He concluded that those students who claim to understand are likely to have passively read the material instead of properly comprehending it. It’s important to ask students to reflect on what they have read. One way to do this is to ask students to write their own analogy for difficult concepts. Eric Mazur says that “confusion is an essential part of the learning process…and should be elicited.”

Read more: Understanding Confusion

More information about Eric Mazur’s research is available from his website: http://mazur.harvard.edu

Getting clickers everywhere…

Matt Jenner18 June 2012

The popularity of clickers at UCL is both satisfying and rewarding. While they are known by many monikers (EVS, PRS, voting handsets, response systems, doofers or ‘those Who Wants to be a Millionaire things’ the term clickers will be used here. When used in education, clickers are shown to have many positive benefits for learners and teachers. A 
 2004) highlighted
studies. Clickers
in parenthesis; 
increase understanding 
understanding (3) 

While these data are somewhat crude, it but a brief segmented analysis of a rather large field. Clickers are cited as enhancing the experience of attending what is still seemingly a compulsory and largely passively didactic form of large group education – the lecture. Additionally it is  important to remember that clickers continually prove themselves to be ‘low threshold technology’ (easy to start using) but with a  caveat that the technology might be easy, but it’s the transformational teaching part that gets people the most.

Increased student interaction

How would you react if 300 students just simultaneously indicated that they don’t understand a key concept live in a lecture. Would you just move on? Instead, perhaps circle back for a while and go over the content some more or load Moodle with some additional resources? These are all good counter-moves and can grow into some wild new pedagogical developments (such as Peer Instruction or Agile/contingent teaching [see footnotes for more info]). From a student’s perspective, they can use clickers to instantly compare their ‘perceived knowledge’ against that of their peers, and the teacher at the front. Anonymity helps keep people voting, perhaps through difficult or sensitive questions and the participation and thinking/cognitive exercise helps to ensure students are more alert as they interact through the session. Or, as one student put it; “how nice to be actually asked to think in a lecture” (Draper and Brown, 2004).

So, they seem to work – that’s a good thing. At UCL we (E-Learning Environments – the central e-learning team) really think they work, so much so that we have been investing in the clickers year-on-year since we adopted them in 2008. We now seem them increasingly embedded in many areas of UCL life from the Medical and Physical Sciences through to Engineering and Economics. We see evidence to suggest they can work anywhere, in any group size (nearly) and would really like to see more growth in other areas such as Arts and Humanities, for example.

Further investment

The typical route to starting with the voting is to contact E-Learning Environments; we can get you started with a demo and a chat about how they can be used. If you know PowerPoint you’re about 60-80% of the way there already. Once you’re confident, you can book a set for a session and we’ll come along too if you like. In addition, for those who want more, for the last few years we have been putting batches directly within departments to cut down on the loaning mechanisms and increase their use and spread within areas of UCL. For the MBBS we have even put them directly with students for 10 months.

Loaning logistics

We’re not going to hide from the fact that picking up, handing out, using, getting back and dropping off potentially hundreds of handsets is a tedious task. It takes a bit of time and muscle to hurl these things around and this has been identified as a blocker for many. This is understandable, so we’re addressing the issue head-on.

Next step – right into the room

Teaching hardware

A project for 2011/12 was to install the voting hardware (a little USB dongle) into every centrally-bookable lecture theatre. This has largely enjoyed much success, with most of the rooms now fitted with the required hardware on the lectern PC. Those who want to use their own laptop just bring their own USB dongle too – but many are using the room’s IT and so it should be enabled for voting automatically. We are not quite finished yet, so do contact us if you’re allocated a room for teaching and want to use the voting for the first time.  We hope in the future all rooms will be ‘voting enabled’ or perhaps even a change in room booking to ensure the correct technology is given to those who request it…

Student hardware

For now we have our sights in permanent installs for student (voting) hardware in two of UCL’s largest teaching spaces. Borrowing 20 handsets for a session is manageable but 300+ is not. Two rooms have been lined up for a permanent install; Cruciform Lecture Theatre 1 and Chemistry Auditorium. A suitable ‘cage’ has been sourced from a supplier which is affixed to the desk and the clicker/voting handset sits within. This is in alignment with users of these rooms being strong clicker users, and us wanting to minimise on the unnecessary logistical operations, to allow more concentration on the teaching and learning and, we hope, increased use of the technology.

Installed student voting hardware and laptop

Minimal interference with other learning materials / resources

When not in use - it is designed to be as discrete as possible.

Coming soon

With funding being made available from August 1st, we hope to commence the work over the summer, or in early Term 1 of the 2012/13 academic year.

The future is mobile

…Apparently. We are also looking into using mobile and smart, browser-enabled devices for voting. While uptake and ownership is actually quite low at UCL, we also don’t currently demand students bring their own device (AKA BYOD) for teaching and learning activities. This may change in the future, perhaps when every pocket has a connected browser, but for now, this technology is sitting in the right place for expansion, hence our rationale for growth in this service.

If you have any comment on any of the points raised please do post on here, email ELE (ele@ucl.ac.uk) or visit the e-learning website.


Peer Instruction (Mazur, 1997) is a form of teaching devised at Harvard by Eric Mazur. He uses clickers to poll the audience on a topic or concept, they vote and then form small-group discussions. They are encouraged to convince someone who voted for a different answer to change their mind, by explaining how they derived at their answer. The correct answer is not given until the second poll, which usually shows a shift towards the correct answer (by student discussion). Finally, Mazur, the instructor, then explains why that answer is correct.

Contingent teaching (Beatty et al, 2006; Draper and Brown 2004) is a slightly more abstract form of teaching whereby there is no set, linear path through the lecture materials. Instead more direction is given from the students, who vote on questions, the results of which are used as indicators for the teacher to move in different directions.

Both forms can even happen ‘by mistake’ when clickers are used, as the reaction of the lecturer is based on the voting results and/or how they want to increase interactivity with the inclusion of the voting results.


Increased interactivity 
 Journal of Computter 

Mazur, E. (1997). Peer Instruction, A User’s Manual. Upper Saddle River, NJ. Pretence-Hill.

Theory to

Electronic voting at FameLab & why this matters

Matt Jenner22 March 2012

Electronic voting systems are a curious thing, first they run under many guises (EVS, PRS, clickers, doofers, voting pads – to name a few), they show strong signs of increasing engagement for learning and they are successful all over the college. They’re often well below the radar and often spread within departments harmoniously between technology evangelists, rather than just a central supporting team. Sometimes they even bust out of our little campus and make it to some faraway lands. One of these places is Cheltenham and the Science Festival which is held each year. Last night, the clickers were being used by FameLab over at the Royal Institution.

Usually used for promoting and engaging student learning this time they were used for an audience vote. There were ten scientists who presented their research/idea/area of interest and at the end of the evening the audience cast their vote, using the clickers, and the winner was Andrew Steele.

FameLab contestants all lined up

Why this matters

First of all it’s a real logistical pain having to drag 380 handsets across London. These things are small, credit-card sized devices. A single one is OK but once you start carrying two hundred+ they become a burden. We already know this but by remaining active users of the technology ourselves, we can ensure that people who use them across UCL will get the best method possible for having hundreds of these things for a large session – as this is when they can be most useful. To help address this we’re looking at more permanent installations actually within the Lecture Theatres – and we shall be releasing more information on this over the coming months.

Carrying 380 handsets - not ideal & could be better!

Secondly it’s another user-case challenge. You can usually use up to 1000 clickers with one laptop, usually enough, and it’s all radio frequency and the only problem we’ve had before is two rooms interfering with one another. We found that the environment rarely gets in the way, but last night it did. Upon testing the Lecture Theatre at the Royal Institution had a huge black spot in the middle. Luckily we tested the voting and moved the laptop into a position where everyone could vote and the results could be read.

Lastly, we had an open vote. This meant that people could vote at any time throughout the evening. If another talker swayed them, they could always change their mind – a standard feature of the clickers. But this meant running a laptop for hours with an open vote – and we’ve never tried this before. Further experimentation could have made this even more exciting, for example there’s a ‘point to point’ option in the voting which allows a heart-rate monitor style open question and it can show the results of the buttons at set intervals. If, for example, teams were up against one another and the audience could continually vote, this would have provided some interesting longitudinal results. Maybe next time?

So the reason why FameLab matters, isn’t necessarily that it’s good outreach (Cheltenham Science Festival has an established relationship with UCL) but that it provides yet another testing environment for creative uses of the voting and this will come back around into the teaching and learning for the institution.

Feedback clickers research at the University of Bergen

Jessica Gramp9 August 2011

Feedback Clickers (which many in the UK refer to as Electronic Voting Systems) are being used at the University of Bergen to:

  • encourage students to attend lectures;
  • hold the attention of students during lectures; and
  • tailor the lecture to meet the needs of the students.

In one subject, the lecturer inserts no more than 5-6 exam questions into the slides of his PowerPoint presentation. During the 2 hour lecture students use their feedback clicker to anonymously “vote” on the correct answer to the multiple choice question. A graph of how many students selected each option is displayed next, followed by the correct answer. The lecturer provides positive feedback to students who answer questions correctly, as well as providing advice to those who answer questions incorrectly on where to learn more about the topic.