Direct Polling of Student Opinion

By Robert Baumiller, S.J.
Associate Dean for Health Education Programs

Several years ago, I was part of a group gathered to test what "Just Caring" might mean in our more and more complicated medical environment. Professor James Fleck of Michigan State University used a polling device to register the audience's reaction to a series of scenarios in which human suffering was measured against inconvenience and cost in bringing relief. Other factors such as relationship to the suffering person and professional responsibility were likewise considered.

Each of us had a hand-held keypad and upon invitation would register our feelings from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree." As soon as the votes were cast, a graph appeared displaying the spread of opinion in our group. Lively discussion ensued as various members conjectured why such a spread of opinion might exist (maintaining the anonymity of answers) or defended their answers.

Subsequently, Jim and I presented some genetic/ethical scenarios at a meeting and successfully engaged the audience in a discussion of genetic screening, how it might be used for the good of a population and how it can harm individuals and families or small sub-populations.

Through the generosity of a benefactor, I had the hardware and software purchased and made available through Bob Cotter in Instructional Media Services.  

The whole package is quite portable. The polling device and 30 keypads come in a suitcase-sized carrying case. A laptop computer and a projector round out the needed equipment. I have taken it on the road and a pull or push, two-wheeled cart is sufficient even for me to move it about.
The software, entitled "Synthesis II," allows several ways of using the device. Students preparing presentations for class can also utilize it with minimal secretarial help.

First, of course, one must plan what one wants to evoke from the audience and what series of questions will lead to the depth of discussion which you hope will evolve. Are the demographics of the audience possibly an interesting reason for diversity of opinion to be registered? If so, you will want to begin your session by gathering demographics data -- sex, age, race, religion, etc. Then each time a poll is taken, you can immediately separate the results according to whatever demographic factor(s) you think important.

The device allows a range of possible responses, so a variety of questions can be asked. The response can be binary -- yes/no or true/false. It can also present a range of options -- "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree." Or, questions can be multiple choice with up to 10 alternative responses.

I find that a case or scenario is best presented in print because of the range of reading speeds in a class. Then, I have the questions on the software. One feature that makes this handy is that the display repeats the question when it gives the results.

Should you or a student bring up a new question, the software will allow impromptu polling by keystroke.

The hardware consists of a radio receiver that recognizes the signal from each separate keypad. The keypads are numbered and the receiver will recognize up to 250 individual keypads. Demographic data and responses are registered and will be saved to the floppy disk that contains the prepared questions.

Thus, if you want to be creative in quiz or exam giving, this device will immediately score each answer and grade your students as soon as each question is asked. Class or individual grades are available on screen or printout. Handing out keypads randomly is important when invoking responses so students have anonymity.  
The keypads are the expensive part of this equipment. Radio wave technology
guarantees the accuracy of vote scoring. Cheaper infra red technology has the
difficulties we all experience in channel surfing and volume changing on our home electronics.

There are 31 keypads available at the University but more can be rented from Modern Office Methods, Inc. (MOM).

My students and I have enjoyed using this equipment. I hope you, too, will find it useful.

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