A high level of interactivity and audience engagement is vital for successful Web conferencing sessions. Most Web conferencing platforms offer a simple but effective interactivity feature: the poll.
Well-designed polls can enhance your sessions and give a boost to your audience engagement. Poorly designed polls can frustrate your audience and have the opposite effect. To avoid such pitfalls, one should think of polls as “mini-surveys.” We can apply best practices from surveys to maximize the results of polling during live online training events.
In this article, I will explore the keys to designing effective polls and delivering them during a synchronous learning session. Instructional designers who set up and support Web conferencing events, and those who facilitate these events, will find practical tips to improve the effectiveness of polling. While this article focuses specifically on polls for training events, the techniques discussed apply to other types of Web conferencing events, including marketing events, online focus groups, and more.
What is polling and why use it?
Polling allows the facilitator to post questions to participants and display poll results in real time. It’s one of the easiest ways to interact with the audience in a Web conference, and it is fast, fun, and scalable. Typically, a facilitator posts a poll and participants immediately begin responding. Both facilitators and participants watch as the poll results keep changing in real time until all responses are collected. An audience new to polling will find it especially fun to see responses and immediate feedback in real time. Participants can know whether others responded as they did to an opinion question, if they selected the right answer to a quiz question, and more. It’s an easy way to engage participants, especially those new to Web conferencing. These participants may be reluctant to speak, or type in the chat box, but will often jump right in and respond to a poll. Additionally, polling is scalable: whether you have an audience of five or five hundred, a live Web poll instantly tallies responses from as many participants as your platform accommodates.
This real-time questioning and answering provides the facilitator and the participants alike with immediate feedback on topics relevant to the conference. Polling can reveal interesting information about the audience’s background, their knowledge level, opinions on the topics of your session, and a range of other data. Guild members also believe that using features such as polls help produce effective learning, according to the June 2008 360º Report on Synchronous Learning Systems. (See Figure 1.) According to this research, 74.5% of respondents who strongly agree that synchronous learning can be as effective as classroom instruction use polling. By contrast, only 61.1% of respondents who are not strong believers in synchronous learning use polling.
However, just because it’s easy and interesting to poll the audience doesn’t mean that a Web conference should be loaded with polling questions. Never do polling for the sake of polling – do it with a specific purpose in mind. For example, the purpose of a poll may be to elicit information about the audience, to quiz participants, to allow participants to self-reflect or to evaluate the session in real-time.
In the rest of this article, I will describe best practices for designing and implementing first-rate polls for Web conferences. Keep in mind that writing polls, and determining how to integrate them into your live online teaching, is an iterative process. As you start to develop your session outline you may see places where a poll will naturally fit into the flow of the session. If you are developing a PowerPoint presentation, use a placeholder slide to “bookmark” the spot where you think the poll will work. Continue with the development of the content of your session, since at this point you don’t need to fully develop the poll. As you start to finalize the content of the session, you can begin writing the polls. By working in this order you prevent the misstep of polling for polling’s sake.
One way to think about polls in a synchronous learning session is to reframe them as mini-surveys. Think about a recent survey that you took, or perhaps designed. It most likely included a few multiple-choice questions, and the purpose of the questions was to gain feedback from an audience. Sounds a bit like a poll, right? Since surveys and polls share many similarities, it makes sense to review best practices for surveys and keep them in mind when writing your polls.
Let’s begin by breaking down a generic poll item into two parts: 1) the question or comment line, and (2) the responses. The question or comment line is the statement that your participant will respond to. Responses are the list of answers your participants choose from. (See Figure 2.)
Best practices for formulating questions include:
- Keep it short. The question should be clear and concise, and written in plain language. Review each word of your question statement to make sure it’s necessary, simplifying any unclear language. An example of a wordy question is, “If given a choice of taking a self-directed course or an instructor-led course to learn about corporate governance, which would you select?” You can reword and shorten this question, while maintaining the essence of it: “In order to learn about corporate governance, would you prefer a self-directed program, or an instructor-led course?”
- Avoid double-barreled questions. A double-barreled question contains two issues or ideas presented as a single question. For example “How often do you search for and enroll in classes using the learning management system?” A person who searches for classes on a regular basis but never enrolls would have difficulty answering this question. If they did answer the question, the validity of the poll results would be questionable. Making this two questions solves the problem. The first question is, “How often do you search for classes using the learning management system?” The second question then is, “How often do you enroll in classes using the learning management system?”
- Eliminate acronyms or unclear language. If your organization is anything like mine, we speak an alphabet soup of acronyms which have a tendency to creep into our writing. Avoid acronyms or spell them out in the question. For example, “How often do you use the new LMS?” Don’t assume that your participants know what LMS stands for – spell it out. Thus a clearer way to write this question is, “How often do you use the new learning management system?”
- Avoid leading or biased questions. A leading question prompts the participants to respond in a particular way. For example, “Why do you prefer a course delivered via the Web or in a classroom for further training on project management?” assumes that the respondent prefers Web-based training. Rewording this question to “Which of the following delivery modes do you prefer to receive further training on project management?” eliminates the bias of the question.
Best practices for formulating responses include:
- Use plain language. As with the polling question, use plain and simple language when writing a list of responses. Keeping the responses short and to the point allows the audience to quickly scan the list and locate their choice. Using plain language prevents the list of poll responses from becoming a speed bump in the flow of the conference.
- Limit answer choices. Limit the number of possible responses to prevent overwhelming the audience with choices. The aim of polls is to quickly obtain information from participants, and they should not be so long or difficult to answer that they become a hindrance to the flow of the session.
- Use mutually exclusive responses. For a multiple-choice question the list of responses needs to be mutually exclusive. For example, if we ask the participants where they are located right now, and the list of responses is, “At work, At home, At a hotel,” how would someone who is working in a home office respond? Also, review your responses with number ranges carefully to make sure that the ranges don’t overlap. If a person had been at an organization for three months, he or she would have a difficult time choosing from these responses: “0-3 months, 3-6 months.” In both of these examples, eliminate the overlap between the responses.
- Use number increments in equal amounts. Check for balance in your responses with number ranges. For example if you ask participants how much time they would devote to an e-Learning course on corporate governance, the responses could be in 20-minute increments: “Less than 20 minutes, 21-40 minutes, 41-60 minutes, More than 60 minutes.”
- Include options for outliers. The range of responses needs to include an option for anyone who may be an “outlier.” An outlier is someone whose response varies greatly from the rest of the group. Review your responses, and make sure that you have offered answer choices for everyone, not just for the most common cases. Common outlier responses include “Other,” “Not applicable,” or “None of the above.”
- Include a “Don’t Know” option if appropriate. Include a “don’t know” option for those questions where the participant may not understand what you are asking, or may not be able to respond to the question. Offering a “don’t know” option allows the entire audience to respond to the poll. If you are monitoring the number of poll responses, you need to include a “don’t know” option when appropriate, so that there is an answer choice for everyone. If you have 20 participants, you want to see 20 responses, or close to it. Remember, you do not want the user to feel boxed in at any point during the Web-conference, and think that the poll doesn’t apply to him or her. This can quickly turn an engaged user into a disengaged user.
Introductory, main content, and final polls
The type of polls you utilize will vary depending on the learning objectives of your Web-conference, and other factors. However, all sessions have a beginning, middle, and an end. If we divide a session into these three parts we can think about polls to use at the beginning of a session, during the main content of the session, and at the conclusion of a session.
Let’s begin by thinking about opening or introductory polls. Ask yourself what would be good to know about the audience, or for the audience to know about each other, prior to the main content of the session. Introductory polls serve the dual purpose of warming up the audience, and getting them used to the polling feature. For this reason, opening polls should always be inviting and non-threatening. After all, this may be the first time you are meeting some or all of your participants, and it’s best to welcome and engage them, not intimidate with a difficult or intrusive question. For example, an opening poll could be, “Where are you located?” or, “How many years have you worked for x company?” Also, given that your audience may potentially consist of participants from around the globe, you may also consider questions such as, “Is English (Spanish, Arabic, etc.) your first language?” Responses to these type of polls gives the facilitator essential information about the background of the audience to help guide the session.
Once your Web conference is underway, you can move on to different types of polls that relate directly to the learning objectives and content of the session. You may want to lead off each section of content with a poll to gauge the audience’s knowledge level of the topic. For example, “How many years of work experience do you have doing data analysis?” If you plan to share statistics or data, an interesting way to stimulate the audience is to pose questions about the data prior to revealing the data. For example, a sample poll covering a data point would be, “What percent of accredited universities in the U.S. offer online degrees?” After the audience has a chance to respond, display the poll results, juxtaposed against the actual data. For example, if most participants selected “20%,” reveal those results to the audience against the actual statistical results. Integrating polls into the main content of the session using these techniques will maintain the attention and interest of the audience. Furthermore, polls that address the main content of a session help break up the one-way nature of a presentation by engaging the audience.
As your session concludes, you may post polls to quiz the audience on what was covered, and to gather feedback on the session. Using quiz questions at the end of the session is a good way to highlight key points you want your participants to remember from the training. An evaluation poll at the end of a session provides real-time feedback about a session, and this information may be especially useful if you are going to repeat the session in the near future.
Preparing to poll in a live session
Now that you have designed a set of well-written polls, the final step is to implement them in the live session. Most Web Conferencing tools allow you to pre-build your polls, and I highly recommend doing so. Preparing as much as possible prior to the actual delivery of your session will help ensure that the polling goes smoothly.
When rehearsing for a live session, make sure that you include your polls as you practice. Decide who will be in charge of posting the polls, and decide exactly when to post them. The Notes section of PowerPoint is an easy way to make sure that everyone is on the same page regarding the timing of the poll.
Practice how you will introduce the poll, and comment on poll responses. Make sure that you have something to say about the poll results. Have you ever participated in a Web conference where they posted a poll and collected responses, but then the session continued with no comment from the speakers about the poll results? I like to refer to this as pointless polling. This situation can be very frustrating for participants, who may wonder why they should bother answering a poll if the facilitator ignores it after collecting responses. After taking the time to post a poll and collect responses, the onus is on the facilitator to comment on the poll results.
To prevent pointless polling in your session, make sure the facilitator practices commenting on the poll responses during the rehearsal. Since you may not have actual responses on the screen when you rehearse, it will be a good time to practice commenting on poll responses with various results. If the audience responds completely opposite of what was expected, what will the facilitator say?
It’s always best to be prepared for any poll results, even the unexpected results. Adding comments in the notes section will help prepare the facilitator for a range of results.
Check to see if your Web conferencing platform offers the option of anonymous polling. Anonymous polling allows you to engage more openly with your audience, and I prefer this technique. Be sure to tell your audience whether poll responses are anonymous at the beginning of your session. You may want to remind participants again early in the session about the anonymity of the polls, in case some people joined late.
Broadcasting poll results
Many synchronous learning systems offer flexibility when displaying poll results. Generally, there are two options for displaying poll results. The facilitator may broadcast results instantly, as the participants respond. Alternatively, the facilitator may choose to broadcast the results after a delay. Figure 3 shows a “before and after” view of what the participant sees, when you choose to delay the broadcasting of the results.
How you use the broadcast feature will depend on the purpose of your poll. In an opening poll it makes sense to display results instantly so that participants can see their interaction with the platform in real time. With knowledge check and opinion polls, I prefer to delay the broadcasting of results to get a more “honest” answer from participants. The downside to immediate broadcasting of results for this type of poll, is that the first responses that appear on the screen will have a tendency to influence the participants who have not yet responded. Delaying the broadcast gives the learner more time for reflection on the question. Whichever technique you choose, be sure to include instructions in the notes section of your PowerPoint, or other production notes, for the session facilitators to indicate how and when you will broadcast results.
In summary, putting some extra time and thought into your polling questions, and into how you will utilize them during a session, will help you maximize the polling feature. Remember, polling is just one of the many tools facilitators have at their disposal to engage the audience. The rule of thumb for Web conferencing learning events is to engage with your audience approximately every three minutes. This means that a one-hour session needs about 20 interactive moments. If one-third of the interactive moments were polls, that would translate to approximately seven polls per hour. Of course, the objectives and content of your session will drive the final number of polls you use. Just be sure not to overuse the polling feature, tiring your audience or making polling a nuisance. On the other hand, don’t underuse this rich and interactive tool which can greatly enhance your participants’ learning experience. Over time, as you gain experience in using polls, you will get a better feel for how often to poll, and for how to best use the polling features of your Web-conferencing platform. Keep in mind the tried and true techniques from surveys when writing polls and you will be on your way to creating first-class polls for your learners.