ENGAGING STUDENTS IN LARGE CLASSROOMS: TURNING
CLASSICAL LECTURES INTO DIALOGUES USING DIGITAL
PEDAGOGY. EXAMPLES, BENEFITS AND PITFALLS
Mark A. Sarvary, Kathleen M. Gifford2
1 Cornell University (UNITED STATES)
2 Science Cabaret (UNITED STATES)
Active learning methods have broken out of small lab rooms and into large lecture courses. Instructors
who wish to avoid being the “sage on the stage” and instead would rather flip the classroom by turning
lectures into dialogues need to adopt methods that engage large groups of students. This is easier
being said than done, and therefore there are many active learning and large classroom ideas
available in blogs and papers dedicated to teaching, but very few concrete examples describing the
application of these techniques.
Our paper provides two concrete examples of how digital pedagogy is used to engage students in a
400+ student introductory biology course at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, USA. These “hot”
scientific topics are ideal to turn the table and have students teach students in a peer-instruction
format: a forum on climate change and a debate on the ethics of genetic engineering. Students
engage via questions and comments, and these immediate assessments of students’ understanding
on a difficult or ethically sensitive scientific topic can help instructors alter teaching on the spot. For
example, in the climate change forum 81% of students felt that climate change is not stoppable and
not reversible, while only 19% found it possible to reverse the effects. Many of them committed to “use
less energy” or “bike to school” after the forum. In a recent debate about CRISPR/CAS-9 only 12% of
the students thought a parent should be able to choose the unborn child’s physical traits, but at the
same time 82% felt that scientists should pursue research that is ethically controversial. Many
students expressed that CRISPR “has great potential, but needs to be regulated”. In order to have a
conversation with such large audiences, instructors need user-friendly digital technologies. We have
been experimenting with digital pedagogy in classrooms and at science communication events for
nearly a decade. In the past 4 years our audiences have participated using a versatile system from
Poll Everywhere. Digital tools like this have transformed a traditionally passive lecture experience into
dynamic dialogues. Students can either send text-messages during lecture, or use web-based
applications on their laptops, cellphones, or tablets to communicate with the instructor. Interestingly,
there was a 5-fold decrease of SMS (texting) based responses in the past 3 years in favor of web-
based responses, a strong evidence of increased adoption of more interactive web-based
technologies in the classroom.
During our lectures we have dialogues with the students, assess their knowledge, ask multiple-choice
questions, create word-clouds and have them write clarifying comments to identify challenges. The
opportunities are endless, as participants can click on a map or biological pathway to choose the
correct answer, brainstorm about an idea, rank concepts, or ask questions.
We are at the forefront of digital pedagogy and educational technology use, and that inevitably
includes the use of students' electronic devices in the classroom. Students using web-based
applications to communicate with the instructor can easily get distracted by other online media such as
their Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram feeds. This is a global challenge for those who use
digital pedagogy, and it is our duty to facilitate active learning exercises that win classrooms back from
online distractions. In this paper we discuss several examples of not only how it can be done, but how
it can be done well.
Keywords: Large classroom, biology, digital pedagogy, polling, Poll Everywhere, science
Human cognitive activity can assist the learning process , hence people learn better by being
engaged during a presentation rather than passively receiving information. There have been many
Proceedings of EDULEARN16 Conference
4th-6th July 2016, Barcelona, Spain
teaching strategies developed to promote audience engagement , but probably the easiest to use is
questioning. In a small group of students or audience members, the presenter/instructor can ask
questions to assess their understanding, gain information about their background by directly
addressing the audience. In larger classrooms different methods need to be sought out as many
students will not volunteer to answer questions, and those who do not answer will be less engaged.
In the past decade there has been a strong movement towards engaging students using classroom
response systems [1,3]. Students need to purchase these “clickers” for their courses, bring them to
lectures or discussion sessions, and answer multiple choice questions, clicking on the correct letter on
their hand-held device. The instructors have the receiver, usually connected to their computers, and
students can see the correct answer and the class distribution of the answers on the projected screen.
The authors of this paper used this system for multiple years and faced challenges, as students did
not know if the instructor registered their answer, they forgot to bring the clickers, or they gave the
clickers to their classmates who answered instead of them. In an Introductory Biology Course at
Cornell University in 2009 it wasn’t unusual to find a student with seven clickers, selecting the answers
for an additional six students not present in class. These challenges in large classrooms made this
technology difficult to use.
The way students acquire scientific information today is completely different than 5-6 years ago. High-
school students and college undergraduates have an amazing array of digitally-sourced scientific
information at their fingertips, and teachers struggle to make efforts to integrate these digital
technologies into their curriculum . Although both teachers and students have widely available
technologies, they have not reached their full potential in academia yet , and digital pedagogy is still
in its early stage. In a survey conducted among US higher education students 53% stated that
instructors use technologies to maintain attention, while 35% said their instructors allow them to use
their own devices to deepen learning .
In 2015 smartphone ownership exceeded the ownership of laptops among students, with around 92%
of students owning a smartphone in the United States . Since smartphones are more affordable
than laptops, they open up opportunities for low-income students and minorities, who are more
dependent on their smartphones for Internet access, than higher income families . Based on these
studies it is safe to say that it is both easier and more affordable to engage audiences asking them to
Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) than having them invest in clicker technology. Students can bring
mobile phones, smart phones, and wi-fi enabled devices including tablets and laptops.
A few years ago the authors of this paper still asked students in the classroom, or science café
attendees, to silence their cellphones. Now, it is encouraged to use your cellphone during lecture and
science café, not only to share newly acquired information on social media right away, but to be more
engaged with the presentation.
In a survey 88% of the students expressed interest in real-time feedback from instructors about their
performance and progress in the classroom . This is a type of formative assessment  that can be
completed by online tools such as the one developed by the Poll Everywhere team. Poll Everywhere
<https://www.polleverywhere.com/> transforms one-way presentations into dialogues. Ask the
audience a question and the SMS or web responses from the audience appear in real time on easy-to-
read charts directly within the presentation. The entire audience can submit their idea or reaction in
the time it would take one person to stand up and respond.
In the flipped-classroom teaching environment instructors want their audience members to actively
participate and gain deeper learning via problem solving and group work . Instructors become
facilitators, while lectures become dialogues, and digital pedagogy tools, such as Poll Everywhere,
creates bridges among all participants. These flipped classrooms rely on student participation, instant
feedback and formative assessment, and as it was mentioned earlier, that level of engagement cannot
be successfully achieved with large audiences, unless instructors embrace these new technologies.
Regardless of the technologies being used to engage audiences, presenters should always have a
audience-centered approach, where they focus on how the learner can be aided by the technology,
and not a technology-based approach, where instructors apply new technologies, just because those
technologies are available  .
The following two-examples discuss how BYOD changed the way we communicate with our
audiences, and how we can turn presentations and lectures into dialogues. Both of these examples
take advantage of Problem Based Learning [8,9], and use Poll Everywhere as a digital pedagogy tool.
2.1 Climate Change Summit
Talking about climate change to the public and to students is still challenging . Audience members
can relate to the topic and be more engaged, if they have a stake in the discussion. Since audience
members/students are often from the same area, it is challenging to expose them to the global effects
of climate change. Participating in a Climate Change Summit is a role-play simulation game, using the
Reacting to the Past format [11,12] can help participants take on a variety of roles, act like they are
from a different country, or they have an occupation in which they influence policy makers and stake
holders. This type of teaching method was designed to help audience members to think outside of the
box, and make decisions based on the quality of evidence. The setting of the role-play the authors of
this paper have used is an imaginary climate change summit or a local forum with either 7 countries
plus the local town (in this case Ithaca, NY, USA), or with local politicians and stakeholders. The
possibilities are endless, and this role-play can be quickly adjusted to the needs of the instructors. This
climate change forum was used for both communicating science to local audiences in a Science Café
format (www.sciencecabaret.org) and in large classroom format to engage 400 undergraduate biology
2.1.1 Science Cafe
A Science café (www.sciencecabaret.org) has been established in Ithaca, NY in 2005, helping local
scientists disseminate science to the public. Ithaca’s Science Cabaret was inspired by the Cafe
Scientifique movement, which started in Europe in the late 1990’s and has spread rapidly. Cafes
Scientifiques are informal talks in bars, cafes and other public venues that give like-minded people a
chance to discuss current and sometimes controversial topics in science. In Ithaca the authors of this
paper co-curate an event one Tuesday a month. The event is held in a local bar, and is open to the
public. Attendance can range from 60-125 at these events. Science Cabaret hosted a role-play climate
change forum twice, inviting local politicians, scientists, community leaders and stakeholders to
participate. These science cafes informed the Investigative Biology course’s adaptation of this format
to large classrooms.
2.1.2 Investigative Biology
The Investigative Biology Laboratory Course at Cornell University (http://investigativebiology.
cornell.edu) is designed for biology majors to provide lab experience with an emphasis on the
processes of scientific investigation and promote collaboration, communication, and literacy in
science. Students gain scientific skills and instrumentation techniques used by biologists to construct
new knowledge. Course topics include genetics, evolution, microbiology, ecology, biochemistry, and
molecular biology. Under the “Limiting Nutrients” module students learn about the use of algae for CO2
sequestration and use as biofuel, and via the role-play tie their studies to climate change.
2.1.3 Summit format
1 Role selection: The groups/individuals assume roles, or being assigned. The roles have no
connection to their country of origin, education, profession, etc. It is preferred if they do not take
on their roles as experts, rather if they are naïve at the beginning and they develop their roles
by critically evaluating available data. For example groups of students from Long Island can
take on the role of being representatives of the Maldives, and approach it from the human
health perspective. These students would focus on developing a statement about how human
health is being affected by climate change in the Maldives. In Science Cabaret a local
lawyer/politician took on the role of a farmer, researched the effects of climate change on the
local cattle and dairy industry and argued for changes in the local community during the role-
2 Preparation for the roles: The participants collect information, usually as a multiple step
process. Participants often first individually gather information, discuss it as a group, critically
evaluate it, and create a written statement based on the collected information. Depending on
the available time, this can be a process of hours or weeks. In Investigative Biology student
groups collect information in Google Docs for a week, share them with their peers who are
assigned the same role, and spend another week to write a one-minute statement.
3 Bringing the information to the summit: participants are well informed at this point. If groups took
on roles, they select a representative, who will deliver the statement at the summit. The
statement must be concise, based on critically evaluated data, and stand-up to any fact
checking. In Investigative Biology, representatives read their statements in front of the 400-
student class. With 24 student groups, and one-minute statements, there is plenty of time for
questions and discussion during the 50-minute long lecture.
4 Debrief: due to the format of the summit, participants will have the opportunity to debate with
other role-players and the audience, sign treaties with other role-players and present these
treaties to the audience.
5 The audience actively participates throughout the event, regardless whether they participated in
the statement preparation, or they just would like to be more informed about climate change.
2.2 Genetic Engineering Debate
This debate was developed and performed by the authors in collaboration with the founding member
of the Cornell student club called Debate in Sciences and Health (http://dshcornell.wix.com/
dshcornell). The topics are a part of the Investigative Biology DNA module, and address ethical issues
in genetic engineering. There are two debaters on both negative and affirmative side, and a
moderator. The strength of the debate in science communication is that debaters prepare for the
debate, and present both sides of the argument, and audience members can critically evaluate the
information and form their own opinions. The debaters may have different personal opinions than what
they are debating for. It is important that the debaters present their assigned debate role to the
audience, and not their personal opinion on the topic.
2.2.1 Debate format
1 Topic selection: A good debate topic appeals to the audience and arguments can be developed
for both pro- and con- sides. Recent debate topics in Investigative Biology included “The United
States Federal Government should mandate that all genetically modified food sold for human
consumption should be clearly labeled” and “Is it ethical to endorse research into using
CRISPR/Cas9 to alter human genetic material?”
2 Preparation for the debate: debaters gather information and prepare for the constructive
speeches and rebuttal arguments.
3 Introductions and facilitation: We recommend having a facilitator who introduces the debaters
and monitors the time throughout the debate.
4 Formatting the debate: the debate follows the British-Parliamentary style debate and is adjusted
to the 50-minute lecture. Two students debate for the affirmative side and the other two for the
negative side. Each debater gives two speeches: constructive and rebuttal. Constructive
speeches are fact-oriented arguments prepared by the debaters in advance. Rebuttal speeches
address the arguments proposed by the opponent. It is recommended that the first speech
given by each debater is a constructive statement. This debate format eliminates plain
statement of facts, ensuring that students address arguments made by the opposing team.
2.3 Audience Engagement Technology
Both the debate and the forum engage not only the participants on the stage but the audience as well.
The authors have been using Poll Everywhere (www.polleverywhere.com) during Science Cafes and
higher education courses since 2012 to engage the audience. Poll Everywhere supports digital
pedagogy using BYOD, and has been used at a large variety of events from corporate conventions
through chemistry classrooms. Examples and cases are available at https://www.polleverywhere.com/
use_cases. The polling software is free for up to 40 responses. In larger classrooms and events it is
advised to either ask students or participants to purchase access (14-15 USD per year in 2016) or
have the class or the institution purchase a yearly access. Science Cabaret audiences often use the
free service, while in Investigative Biology the course purchases access every year. This web-based
software is very user friendly; participants can download the Poll Everywhere app to their
smartphones, or use web-browsers on tablets and laptops. Free webinars are offered for all users:
In Investigative Biology students are invited to enroll with the course’s Poll Everywhere site. They
connect their accounts to the course accounts, and the course instructor records their responses. This
is very important if audience members need to receive credit for their answers or participations. In
Science Cafés all questions are survey questions, and the responders remain anonymous.
As it was mentioned earlier, science communication/education needs to lead the choice of technology
and not vice versa. The engagement of audience members is the goal of both large classroom
teaching or smaller science cafes, and web-based BYOD technologies, such as Poll Everywhere were
developed to assist the instructor/facilitator to create dialogues with the audience.
One assessment of audience engagement is asking the same question before and after a
presentation, and detecting if the event resulted in any changes in the audience’s response (Fig. 1.)
Fig. 1. Example pre- and post-forum Poll Everywhere questions in Investigative Biology at Cornell
University (n=323). These questions were asked using Poll Everywhere multiple choice format in lecture.
Regardless of the topic, with Poll Everywhere the presenter is not limited to multiple-choice questions,
as Is required by the hand-held clicker technology , rather it is possible to develop a variety of
ways to engage the audience. Poll Everywhere offers open-ended questions that can create word-
clouds, word clusters (Fig. 2.) or lists. Poll Everywhere offers online live Q&A where audience
members submit questions to the presenter. Brainstorming, where participants submit all of their
ideas, is also possible.
In ranking, audience members can arrange different concepts in order, and presenters can project a
clickable image, and if participants click on the correct image part, they can receive credit for their
answers. Example questions from the summit and the debate are listed in Table 1.
Fig. 2. Example open-ended Poll Everywhere questions in Investigative Biology at Cornell University
(n=421). Results are presented in a word cloud format (on top) and in a cluster format (bottom).
Table 1. Question examples and their types asked by the authors during debates
and forums using Poll Everywhere.
Is it ethical to use CRISPR/Cas9 to alter human
What is the first word that you think of when we
mention genetic engineering?
Open ended (word cloud)
Which one is the
correct model for
Click on the correct
Clickable image with the number of
answers displayed on the right upper
corner of each image.
Rank the following issues, including climate change,
in your life from the most important to the least
The percentage of students who use the Poll Everywhere text service (SMS) instead of the web-based
Poll Everywhere service (smartphone app or internet browser) during the debate in Investigative
Biology has declined from 27% (Spring 2013) to 6% (Spring 2016). This indicates that the percentage
of students with web-enabled devices has increased in the past three years. This may be due to the
fact that cheaper smartphones opened up opportunities for a greater diversity of students  who may
not be able afford an extra device, such as a clicker, or a laptop.
3.1 Climate Change Summit
In Science Cabaret the audience members are often asked to form their opinions before and after the
summit, and they are also surveyed during the forum (Fig.2.) Audience members often discuss their
opinions with attendees around them, and form an opinion based on what they’ve heard. In
Investigative Biology students are asked questions before and after the summit, usually in a multiple-
choice format. During the summit they can comment on the representatives’ speeches in an open-
ended format. Students are engaged during the entire summit, and it is not unusual that over 1500
responses are received from 400 students during a 50-minute lecture. After the summit these
comments are downloaded and shared in a table with all the students (both audience members and
Role-players and their groups at both the science café and in large lecture take their roles seriously,
and often dress up, change their accent, etc. to better fulfill the roles they represent.
3.2 Genetic Engineering Debate
It is important to assess the audience, especially in emotionally loaded topics. Every debate forum
starts with an open-ended question that allows the debaters to see—in a word-cloud format—which
phrases are the most frequent (Fig.1). The debate is interrupted multiple times by using the classroom
response system. This allows the debaters to continuously engage the audience, while simultaneously
helping to assess the effectiveness of the debate. Questioning the audience at the beginning and at
the end of the debate, using the same questions provides feedback on whether the debate actually
changed the opinion of the audience members. This type of polling is similar to the presidential debate
polling in the United States.
Besides formative assessment benefits, web-based tools such as Poll Everywhere offer the unique
opportunity for instructors to collect data about their audiences. Over half of the students surveyed in
the United States in 2015  found it useful if colleges/universities collected data to help their
academic process, such as improving teaching methods and pedagogical tools.
Combining role-playing, presenting multiple sides of an argument without being emotionally attached
to either of the arguments, helps audience members, especially young, budding scientists to develop
critical thinking skills. The ability to hold opposing viewpoints and learning how to frame and integrate
complex ideas into a much broader context are the most important outcomes of these multi-faceted
dialogues. In the words of the American novelist, F. Scott Fitzgerald: "the test of a first-rate intelligence
is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function"
These methods (forum and debate) can perfectly deliver emotionally charged topics, such as climate
change and genetic engineering, where lecturers may bring too much emotion to their presentations,
instead of conveying facts and evidence and allowing students to critically evaluate the information.
These teaching methods provide ownership of the learning process to the audience members, and the
participants, remove the bias of the instructor and at the same time actively engage everyone on and
Several studies [1,15] have warned about the lack of distinction between instructional media and
instructional methods. The medium is the physical device the audience uses to engage with the
presenter and with other audience members. These could be clickers, laptops, cellphones, tablets,
etc. The instructional method combines the techniques the speaker or teacher uses to engage the
audience: asking students to explain a concept to their neighbor (peer-instruction), summarize the
most important points, identify the challenges (muddiest point), etc. Instructors and presenters must
focus on the methods and see how the media can assist them in their efforts.
As with every technology, using BYOD-based digital pedagogy has its own challenges. While a web-
based polling software is user friendly, presenters need to have a certain level of familiarity with these
technologies before their first presentation. Poll Everywhere questions can be downloaded and
inserted into presentations, or web-browsers can be used to show the questions. Presenters may
choose to post the question online, and only show the responses after the question is locked. These
are useful features for an instructor, but all require familiarity with the system.
A large percentage of college students (92%) own two devices that potentially use campus networks
during lectures . It means that if you have 400 students in the classroom, and the Wi-Fi system can
handle 1000 devices, the system may still crash, as each student will have 2 or 3 devices connecting
to the routers at the same time. Students’ experiences with Wi-Fi in academic institutions are
disappointing, as many campus networks are still not advanced enough to support digital pedagogy
Not every instructor embraces digital pedagogy and using mobile technologies in classrooms or during
presentations. At NYU in New York, NY, USA mobile phones in the classroom are considered a
distraction due to the negative effects of multitasking on the quality of work . Nationally, nearly
60% of instructors are concerned that mobile devices distract students rather than improve
Acceptance of BYOD in classrooms grows slowly, with 26% of instructors allowing mobile devices in
classrooms in 2013, which grew to only 31% in 2015 . At Cornell University many instructors do not
allow the use of laptops and smartphones , despite that many of the classrooms are appropriately
upgraded for these technologies. Some of the Cornell courses however, such as the Investigative
Biology Laboratory Course encourage BYOD and digital pedagogy . The authors hope that this
trend will continue.
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