Teaching at Pitt

Free Web- and Cloud-Based Audience Response Systems: What You Need to Know Before You Get Started

As TopHat vies for the number one spot in educational audience response systems (ARS) at Pitt, more instructors are considering the teaching and learning benefits of such systems. Oftentimes instructors question whether ARSs are worthwhile and can get overwhelmed by all the choices. From PollEverywhere and Mentimeter to Turning and Iclicker, it seems the options are limitless.

No need to worry about benefits, audience response is an active-learning technique and there is plenty of research to document added value. Feedback from the audience of students will often prove to be useful and effective in the areas of renewing motivation, spotting difficulties and measuring engagement. So, how will instructors know what can work in their particular educational settings? Here are a few definitions and criteria to help locate the right tools for the right jobs.

Consider the Audience

Take some time to get to know your students. Do they seem to gravitate toward discussion? Are they likely to get pulled away by their phones and computers during class? Do they seem to be eager to answer “show of hands” questions? Is your class a seminar or smaller-sized lecture? If the answers to these questions are generally yes, an electronic audience response system may not be necessary. However, if the students are hesitant to participate during discussion and question time but eager to see your slides and material, an ARS may be a good choice.

Check Your Options

Next, plan to test your ideas with a low-stakes system before you select something that requires extensive overhead. In order to do this, you will need to check your department policies. Some departments and schools have established policies on technological platforms that will guide your usage. A teaching and learning consultant can assist you with locating policies and making sure you are in compliance with them. After you have the departmentally approved options, choose appropriate moments during a course to test an ARS and think about the factors that are most important for your class.

Popular Free Systems

Some of the more popular free web- or cloud-based systems include PollEverywhere, Mentimeter and Socrative.

PollEverywhere offers a wonderful range of question types and has the advantage of student familiarity. While a free account would allow for up to 40 users, instructors can contact the Teaching Center’s classroom services unit to use a license that can accommodate up to 250 users. (Please note that licenses are limited.) One of PollEverywhere’s best features is the word cloud question. The instructor asks students a question for which they will generate a one word response and PollEverywhere demonstrates a visual that shows the responses based on volume. A case where the top PollEverywhere answer was “students” would look like the graphic on the right.

Mentimeter’s main advantages are that it has an unlimited user capacity and requires no software installation for use. It also offers a range of different question types and real-time results viewing.

Socrative is the most robust of these three options. It offers a very wide range of features, from activities to quizzes and even a gamified competition option. Socrative’s free account accommodates up to 50 users.

Check for Alignment

While these technologies can enrich classroom learning a great deal, it is important to be sure that using them is done in alignment with the course learning objectives. Any ARS you use should be directly related to a specific learning objective communicated in your syllabus to ensure maximum benefit to teaching and learning. The University Center for Teaching and Learning’s consultants are happy to help with this pedagogical work as well.

Make Sure Students Benefit

A common issue for students using ARS platforms is that as questions are asked, the benefits of answers and data about those questions is limited to instructors. As you develop your use of ARSs, take a look at how students benefit from what you learn during the exercises. For instance, if you learn that 95 percent of your class knows the correct answer to a particular question, make sure the students are aware of this and offer some reinforcement for the rest of them. You can also look for patterns within misconceptions or systems of them. This is a great way to assure alignment as you’ll constantly bring your use of the ARS back to the course objectives when you think of the student benefits.


Tahirah Walker is a teaching and learning consultant for the University Center for Teaching and Learning.