Audience Response Systems for teaching and talks – Why? And How?

(From the EiC: A welcome to Victoria Brazil who joins the ICE Editorial Board. )

By Victoria Brazil (@SocraticEM)

Most of us have been part of a talk or educational session in which some version of an audience response system (ARS) or ‘clickers’ were used – whether we were teacher or learner.

One of my favourite low-tech techniques is to ask students (or even large audiences in keynote speeches) to “close your eyes and put up your hand” for a preferred option to a multiple-choice type question. This allows a semi-anonymous commitment to an answer without bandwagon effect. It also lets me see how much more time is needed on the topic, and also maybe just provides evidence that they are still awake….

But of course, technology has given us a lot more options in 2016. This post takes a look at the benefits and drawbacks of using audience responses systems, offers a shallow dive into whether they ‘work’, and looks at some of the software and Apps available.


Educators may be drawn to ARS simply for student or audience engagement – it’s interactive and hence generally more fun. This enjoyment can be enhanced further through various gamification strategies, most particularly competitive elements between individuals or teams.

ARS can be used to encourage flipped classroom participation, and as part of team based learning, as learners are more likely to do the pre-assigned work if there is some kind of ‘test’’.

As described above, an ARS allows learners to commit to an answer (or in some cases ask a question) anonymously, removing the risk of embarrassment in front of peers that is a barrier to classroom or audience participation.

For those facilitating learning, ARS can offer an efficiency advantage. If everyone gets an answer right – you can simply move on. If most get it wrong but all give the same wrong answer – its probably just a key shared misconception to discuss. If responses are evenly distributed across options – maybe we need to stop and talk through this concept in a bit more detail.

With fancier options, educators can track the progress of learners, offering low stakes, high volume formative assessment.

Why not?

Except for the simplest of versions (see above J ), most ARS software or Apps have a learning curve for users. Perhaps more fundamentally, writing great questions – those that reliably assess learners’ knowledge and ability to synthesise and apply it – is really hard and takes time. Ask anyone who writes exam items.

Some software has a cost, and sometime your choice is limited by institutional subscriptions – many of which may not be exactly…. well… contemporary.

Does it ‘work’?

Obviously, this depends on what you are trying to achieve.

Most of the publications relating to this question cite favourable engagement and student perceptions of effectiveness for learning(1), and helped students confidence and ‘ability to gauge their level of mastery’(2). A BEME systematic review of effect on learning outcomes of ARS suggested some benefit in knowledge scores. (3)

I think the impact of the ARS is near impossible to separate from the confounders of motivated teachers, any kind of interactivity, and the heterogeneity and measurement challenges of these learning outcomes.


(NB Nil product disclosures)

There are many options and products available. For maximal flexibility, I’d suggest products that are multi-platform (e.g .,web or App) that use personal devices for polling, and that offer attractive ways of displaying the results in real time.

My favourite for medium and large audience talks has been Poll Everywhere – you can run it from Powerpoint, questions can be any combination of free text or multiple choice, and responses can be web, SMS or twitter. Results are displayed as graphs or word clouds or lists. The cost ranges from free to $499/month (depending on user numbers and some fancier options). It used to have a significant response delay when used in Australia as the servers were US based, but I’ve noticed recent improvements in timing.

mQlicker is a simpler free version with most of what an occasional user would need, and reviewed here.

I did a quick search for wisdom on Twitter (which also offers Twitter poll as pointed out by one respondent) to find some other favourites.

Audience response systems_pic2.jpg

Socrative is an App designed more with a classroom in mind. Instructors and learners need to have downloaded the App to use, and the look and feel is more ‘gamified’. Competitive elements are emphasised, as are learner tracking. Developing quizzes and questions is fairly easy. Free for a small group and $49.95/ year for  the ‘Pro’ version

Nearpod has many similar features and offers web based responses as well. Kahoot was another favourite among my Twitter colleagues, also for its ‘game’ feel. Verso is another classroom focused application which blurs the boundary with more comprehensive learning management systems.

No doubt readers have other favourites and other reviews are out there. Feel free to share your experiences in the comments section

But don’t forget the low tech……Easy solutions can be highly effective.

This tech is from my friends at @bad_EM . It was used at their recent Emergency Medicine Symposium in Stellenbosch SA.


So… what do you use?


  1. Pettit RK, McCoy L, Kinney M, Schwartz FN. Student perceptions of gamified audience response system interactions in large group lectures and via lecture capture technology. BMC Med Educ. 2015;15:92.
  2. Nayak L, Erinjeri JP. Audience response systems in medical student education benefit learners and presenters. Academic radiology. 2008;15(3):383-9.
  3. Nelson C, Hartling L, Campbell S, Oswald AE. The effects of audience response systems on learning outcomes in health professions education. A BEME systematic review: BEME Guide No. 21. Medical Teacher. .2012;34(6):e386-e405.