5 Ways to Find Out What Students are Thinking

Bored Students

Student participation typically falls into two extreme ends of the class discussion continuum. Some students raise their hand every time I ask a question. These students have an opinion on just about everything, and if I’m not careful they will dominate class discussion. I have had experiences where the same 2-3 students will talk so much during discussions that the other students will stop raising their hands. As a teacher, this is definitely a scenario you want to avoid. The end of the spectrum is characterized by a roomful of students who are so disengaged they will barely make eye contact. Maybe they didn’t do the class reading, or perhaps they think that avoiding discussion will shorten class time and end in an early dismissal. Perhaps the class is large and students are intimidated speaking in front of the group. Either way, it makes for a very awkward and aggravating situation.

The longer I have taught, the more strategies I have discovered for getting the entire class involved in discussion. Early in my career I would just pose questions to the entire class. I eventually learned simple strategies like using cards or popsicle sticks for calling on students who don’t raise their hands. This helped me get more students involved. Still, getting called on was a game of chance and some students would tune out in hopes that their number wouldn’t get called. I eventually started using some different pedagogical strategies such as Think, Pair, Share, Numbered Heads Together, Jigsaw, Jeopardy, or Fishbowl for engaging students in discussion prompts. Each of these techniques for facilitating discussion got everyone involved and had more accountability than sitting in class hoping not to get called on.

Even with great discussion strategies, there are times when I want to know what the students are thinking. This isn’t always possible when the majority of the discussion is a verbal exchange. I have used chart paper or construction paper to have students summarize their thoughts, but this is not always easy to present and when it’s all over I’m stuck with a bunch of chart paper.

With the emergence of free (or kind of cheap) web-based and mobile apps, teachers can find out what students are thinking in a variety of ways, and all without using up all the consumables. I will describe five tools I have used in my classes to put student thinking at the forefront of the discussion.


This is a free app that has iOS, Android, and web-based options. Students enter in the class code then wait for a prompt from the teacher. Results are instantly aggregated on the screen, giving everyone real-time results from the prompt. There are several options for prompts teachers can send the class, including T/F, Multiple Choice, and Short Answer. Prompts can be generic (i.e., A, B, C …) or prepared in advance with specific answer choices. Results from saved quizzes can be downloaded as a spreadsheet for further analysis or grading.

Socrative is a great tool for quick discussion questions where you A) want students to talk about a prompt and B) get fast statistics on what everyone is thinking. I have had students use the mobile app on their phones many times, and it almost always works like a champ. I just post the question, students grab their phones, and within minutes you have a bar graph populated with student responses. This can actually prompt further discussion.


Another way to find out what students are thinking is to have them place a dot on an image. When enough people do this on the same image you can start to see trends and hotspots. I have done this with continua (e.g., Place a dot on the continuum where you believe the responsibility lies for a positive classroom: Teachers or Students), maps, quadrants, or other diagrams.

When you upload an image to ActivePrompt, you are given two prompts: one for the students to place their dot, and one with all of the dots displayed. You can try this using the following URL:


You can see the results here:


I have used this tool in class several times, and it has always been reliable. Students will typically discuss a prompt in pairs, place their dot based on their discussion, then we will discuss patterns and themes as a class.


This tool has many of the same features as Socrative, but it has the extra benefit of the InfuseDraw tool. Teachers send students a prompt on which they can draw, annotate, or label an image. Results are saved in the teacher dashboard and can be downloaded as a PDF. Like Socrative, the students do not need an account to log in. They just enter the class code and they are ready for the teacher to send the prompt. The few times I have used this tool it has worked great. Since Apollo, my class-syncing tool of choice, has some of the same features I tend to use that tool instead. However, if you are looking for straight prompts without having students follow your presentation on their screens, InfuseLearning is the way to go.

Google Presentation

I have already written about how to use this tool before, so I won’t spend a lot of time explaining how I have used this activity in class. You can do the same thing, or something similar, with Google Docs or Draw, but I like the features in Presentation and the fact that you can assign each group a different slide in the same file.

Google Forms

If you are wanting to get more extensive feedback from students, Forms is the way to go. Results from the forms are instantly sent to a spreadsheet. We all know that spreadsheets are like magic because of all you can do with them. With the emergence of Add-Ons, you can now do even more. Some examples of ways I have used Form data: display the automatically-generated pie graphs, randomly choose responses directly from the spreadsheet, cut and paste the responses into Wordle for an (almost) instant word cloud, or e-mail the students a badge once they complete a set of prompts or an activity (this is not done in real-time … usually after class).

Since the types of items you can use in a Google form are so diverse, there are many opportunities to use this tool to facilitate discussion in class. Responses are anonymous by default unless  you include an item for names. This tool will require some preparation before class, but that is true of most that I have mentioned here. It’s one thing to send out an impromptu poll using Socrative. It’s something quite different to make my students sit and watch me create a Google Form. Overall, this is a great tool to keep in the box and use when it fits your instruction.

The importance of discussing and reflecting on learning experiences is pretty well documented. When we give students the opportunity to verbally process their thinking, we increase the chances that they will be able to retain and apply skills and knowledge after the fact. Discussion and reflection helps us give new information personal meaning. Good class discussion starts with good pedagogical practice, but with new tools there are even more opportunities to make it relevant, engaging, and active.

What tools or strategies do you use to facilitate class discussion and find out what students are thinking?

2 thoughts on “5 Ways to Find Out What Students are Thinking

  1. Pingback: 5 Ways to Find Out What Students are Thinking |...

  2. A simple collaborative blog allows students to enter comments, images, videos as the conversation evolves. Powerful for flipping classroom or working remotely synchronously or asynchronously.

Comments are closed.