Evolutionary Psychology

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Robert Kurzban

The Evolutionary Psychology Blog

By Robert Kurzban

Robert Kurzban is an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite. Follow him on Twitter: @rkurzban

New Technology For Encouraging Class Participation

Published 17 April, 2012

Today’s entry is related to evolutionary psychology in only an oblique sense. I thought I’d write a little bit about a new technology I used in my Evolutionary Psychology class this semester at Penn – I wrote a post about one of my exam questions in this class back in February –  a little tool called Poll Everywhere.

First of all, I’m going to say some nice things about it, and I want to be clear that I have no financial stake in Poll Everywhere. It’s just one of several tools that Penn is currently looking at to bring useful technologies into the classroom. And, I should say, that there was no charge to me or my students, so part of the appeal might lie partially in the excellent price.

Here’s how it works. Before my class, I produce a PowerPoint slide using Poll Everywhere’s web site. Typically, the slide just says something like, “Any questions?” at the top. The slide also gives students a number to which they can send a text message, as well as a URL. This takes me about 3 minutes or so. When I get to the slide in class, I invite students to ask questions either by raising their hand or by using their phones or laptops, using the information on the Poll Everywhere slide. Anyone with a smart phone or networked computer (i.e., everyone) can then send a question or comment to the slide. These questions or comments then appear on the slide itself, without attribution.

After a brief pause, during which I address any questions that come in through the traditional  method of a raised hand, comments and questions start to appear on the slide. I’ve given an example of student replies from one of my lectures on mating psychology below. The upside of this system is that shy people are, it seems to me, much more likely to contribute. Because the comments are anonymous, and because they don’t require speaking in the large class – about 100 students are enrolled in my class this semester – my sense is that many more people feel comfortable asking questions. I haven’t gathered data, but it’s very clear that I get a lot more questions when I use these slides than when I don’t. This could be due to the novelty of the system, or some other reason, but whatever the reason, I get a significant number of more or less interesting comments and questions.

Examples of student comments on Poll Everywhere

It’s also more interactive than it seems at first. After I answer a question, I’ll ask if that clarified the matter, and usually the person who asked the question will add a little follow-up “yes” or “no,” depending on whether I did or not. Also, as debates emerge, people chime in with their particular view on the subject. Generally, I found that this system made the class more interesting for me and for the students, though students haven’t filled in their evaluations yet, so I could be wrong.

I only use the free response functions, but you can add polls to which students can respond if you want. So far, I haven’t made use of the full functionality of the system; the free response suits my purposes for now.

There are, of course, potential downsides. Some are obvious. Because it’s anonymous, students might be tempted to say things that they probably wouldn’t say out loud if everyone knew who said them. This might include off color remarks, attempts at levity, non sequiturs, advertisements, or who knows what. There have been a couple of such remarks, but, really, hardly any, and not nearly enough to make me worry about the signal to noise ratio. I don’t know if this has to do with the particular properties of the students at Penn, but my sense is that they feel as though the direct path from their phone to the PowerPoint signals that I trust them, and they seem to be inclined to behave pretty much as I expect them to.

Another downside is an embarrassment of riches. As questions come in, I feel that I have to try to answer them all, at least to some degree. This risks taking us down a sizable number of relevant but perhaps ancillary pathways, undermining my ability to cover all the material that I wanted to get through. It seems bad form to take questions and then answer only a fraction of them. In a big enough class – or a voluble one – this might be a problem. So far, I haven’t found this to be the case, perhaps with the exception of the mating lectures which, perhaps not surprisingly, elicited a sizable number of comments.

So, there are potential problems but I like to think that the system has drawn questions and comments from students who otherwise would be reluctant to ask in the lecture hall, and in this way I think the system is useful. I’m not sure I would use it in a seminar, but I’ll probably be tempted to continue to use it in lecture classes.



  • Dhs4

    One option is to post the poll ahead of time and ask students to respond with questions the night before. That morning you can do a quick “triage” of questions.

    • rkurzban

      I actually hadn’t considered that. Great idea.

Copyright 2012 Robert Kurzban, all rights reserved.

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