Promoting active learning in large classes

History students learn to think like historians as they ask questions and respond through live polling in the lecture hall


Professor Sarah Shields teaches the history of the Modern Middle East at University of North Carolina. Her lectures fill up with 200 students each, which doesn’t leave much room for traditional class participation.

Sarah wanted to change the tenor of her lectures. She wanted to go beyond just transmitting facts and concepts to her students, and actually teach them how to question, evaluate, and prioritize stories like real historians. To learn science, she reasoned, you do science. But how do you do the work of a historian in such a large group setting?

How do you create an active lecture for 200 students?

A colleague in the UNC Center for Faculty Excellence recommended that Sarah try using Poll Everywhere in her lectures. She knew it wouldn’t completely transform her class into a critical learning lab, but she hoped it would help to engage students with the big questions and break them out of passive study mode.

Sarah found that polling gave her students a voice, even in a huge lecture hall. She starts each session with an attendance poll. Students check into class by answering a multiple choice history question. As class wraps up, she asks them to discuss major historical issues in small groups and text in responses to a word cloud poll.

Students’ participation through Poll Everywhere has also emboldened them to speak out without using the technology.

— Sarah Shields

Use Poll Everywhere to give each student a voice

Sarah also uses an open-ended poll to mine questions on the lecture, often getting insightful queries that anticipate the next lecture. She finds students love watching others respond, seeing new alternatives to the problem, and looking at new ideas.

The use of polling has had unintended results as well. "Students’ participation through Poll Everywhere has also emboldened them to speak out without using the technology," Sarah said, "though volunteering to speak in front of more than 200 students remains a daunting prospect for many."

[Poll Everywhere] … is making my students engage more actively with the problems of historical interpretation, analytical reasoning, and the critical analysis of sources.

— Sarah Shields

How can you do this?

Start your lecture with a multiple choice activity that doubles as an attendance poll.

Near the midpoint of the lecture, project a word cloud activity asking students to share their thoughts on the subject in a single word.

Wrap up the lecture by asking what questions the students have. Have them respond via a Q&A activity. Analyze responses to help tailor future lectures.