Students are often reticent to speak up in front of large groups online but when offered anonymous ways to share thoughts and feedback, most are keen to participate. Christina Stanley explains how to put this to good use
Students are often reticent to ask or answer questions in a large group during face-to-face sessions and the digital world is no different. The all-engulfing silence following a request for contributions translates into a sea of students’ initials in the Microsoft Teams world.
I’d given the option of using the chat function, so why were my students not responsive? Was I, in fact, speaking to myself?
I’m sure this is something we’ve all experienced at some point in our careers as educators. We know that active learning is the holy grail of education, but how can we achieve this digitally when our students don’t play ball?
To resolve this issue, I first put myself in the place of a student. Remembering a conversation with a final-year student who struggled with an anxiety disorder, it occurred to me that it’s not just speaking up that’s nerve-racking in a virtual room full of unknown entities; having your name assigned to your contribution is an added source of pressure.
I considered the options available and decided to use an online polling platform – in this case Vevox – to allow students the opportunity to contribute to my sessions anonymously. The change in student participation was significant.
As an example, in a coursework support session, I first tried asking for questions via the Teams chat; one or two questions came through from the “usual suspects”, but nothing from the 50 or so other students who appeared to be present. I then repeated the offer using the anonymous Q&A board on the polling platform and, hey presto, the questions started flooding in – sensible ones, too.
The same is true when I ask questions on session content to try to evaluate student understanding; a few students are happy to make suggestions via the chat, but many sit in silence. When I move to using a polling platform, however, there’s a significant increase in the number of replies, suggestions and votes. I’m not promising 100 per cent participation but certainly a noticeable increase.
This is great for lecturers. We love to know our students are still out there; speaking to a blank screen is not an enjoyable experience for most of us. We are communicators, not dictators.
But what about the students? There are, of course, clear benefits to using the anonymous response approach for them as well, not just in terms of opportunities for personalised learning.
We are all too aware that mental health conditions are highly prevalent in our student body. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the situation has only worsened, with a significant proportion of students struggling with their mental health. Support networks are harder to access, treatment is more difficult to obtain, and the instability and unpredictability of the outside world can exacerbate symptoms significantly.
However, it’s not just the students with diagnosed anxiety disorders who find participating in class a challenge; many lack confidence in their abilities, in particular those from under-represented groups, where imposter syndrome can be a huge hurdle to overcome.
As educators, we need to provide mechanisms to level the playing field, particularly during a pandemic; despite us all facing the same storm, we are, of course, all in very different boats.
That’s where the opportunity for anonymous contributions can make a real difference. Practice makes perfect; by having a suggestion affirmed by the tutor or receiving feedback as to how an argument can be improved, the fragile seeds of confidence can be nurtured.
Positive experiences reinforce the idea that it’s OK to make mistakes or to not get it quite right – an important lesson for all and a key stage in the journey to becoming an independent learner.
Don’t just take my word for it – here’s what my students have said:
“Since teaching has gone online, I feel very anxious whenever we are asked to talk and answer, so this is a nice way that helps me and others feel more relaxed.”
“It allows me to interact more in lessons, especially now with them being online. It helps with my confidence because I’m not afraid to get an answer wrong. :)”
There will be sceptics among you. Are we helping students by allowing them such a buffer from the “real world”, where speaking up will become necessary, for example, in a job interview? It is my view that the achievement gained from successfully contributing anonymously will make positive steps towards this goal, especially where such participation is rewarded.
Does anonymity pave the way for inappropriate or unhelpful comments? I must say that in my experience, this rarely happens; content filters are there, if required.
Perhaps the biggest challenge: do these platforms level the playing field or can they enhance inequality for students experiencing digital poverty? Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to this question right now. All I can say is choose your tech wisely; accessibility to all is a must, so ensure your platform is smartphone compatible or give other options where possible.
As with all learning technology, consider your use of polling software wisely; a student has pointed out to me that the overuse of polling becomes “boring”. Ensure the underlying pedagogy is sound; use polling software to address a need, not in a decorative manner.
But, most importantly, listen to your students. This has worked for my modules, but it may not be suitable for all scenarios. And, speaking as an animal behaviour researcher, do remember to use positive reinforcement; the power of these tools lies in the skill set of the trainer.
Christina Stanley is a senior lecturer and senior university teaching fellow at the University of Chester.