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Talis Elevate

Talis Elevate: Engaging the silent majority

Matt East

We’ve all been faced with the dreaded radio silence after asking ‘any questions?’ at the end of a lecture, only to later receive a barrage of emails with the same questions. It’s a common experience in Higher Education and it’s not a problem that’s easy to solve. 

During my time working in HE, I found a very valuable mechanism to this problem was to utilise audience response solutions, giving students the ability to post their thoughts and questions throughout a lecture or seminar. Perhaps the most valuable mechanism here was to give students the ability to upvote/downvote other’s contributions. 

I found this particularly valuable for crowdsourcing the classroom’s thoughts on content that needed additional guidance and information. Students could contribute, and could see that I had responded to their thoughts. Their feedback was that they felt more inclined to participate during the activity. My audience response tool of choice was PollEverywhere, but others with this functionality are certainly available… 


However, the problem with this mechanism is that really, it relies on the engagement from those in the audience, and it’s a snapshot. You’re not starting a dialogue, or growing knowledge together. Whilst this approach can be used in a multitude of ways, it is still restricted. Building questioning and contributions into the body of resources so they can be accessed again and referenced throughout studies is the winner here. 

At Talis, we’ve delved into this a bit deeper, and have spoken with students across disciplines and campuses to find out why they don’t typically speak out or ask for more info. As you can imagine, a myriad of reasons was cited, but a common phrase was used that I hadn’t really heard from students in the past: fear. 

Fear is a multi-faceted term in this context. Fear of being seen to ask a stupid question, fear of being seen by peers as not understanding the subject matter, fear of challenging the lecture or peers and the list goes on. That fear can be the blocker that stops participation and questioning at the start of the course.

I was recently pointed to this article again, following a discussion with a fellow Ed-Tech colleague during a discussion about increasing contributions from students in and out of class, and the impact that can have. The research cited in this post, undertaken by Perry Sampson using Echo360, details the common experience we find in the UK. Samson introduced an anonymous backchannel into his course. Students could read each other’s questions and the academic could respond in a public domain so everyone gets the answer. Simple stuff really, and as you’d imagine, students made considerable use of this, citing an increase in questions from about 50 to over 300 in a semester. 

In this research, Samson recommends that this anonymous approach to questioning should be a default option across all introductory courses in his subject discipline. I completely agree with this. Too often we struggle to get participation from our students, and creating a culture early on of questioning (or being more open to ask questions) can totally transform a cohort dynamic. This is certainly something we’ve seen with Talis Elevate and detailed in a number of blog posts

From a Talis Elevate perspective, we covered some pointers around increasing student engagement with discussion in a recent webinar. Many of the recommendations were around discussion activity in general rather than following the backchannel principal Samson discusses, but a few top tips still apply: 

  • Introduce your expectations for questioning early in the course.
  • Give students a test environment so they know how to participate.
  • Show you’re also contributing by replying to students. You can do this by responding to a Talis Elevate annotation email as well.
  • Encourage your students to respond if they believe they can answer the question.
  • Evidence to your students how you are adjusting your teaching/approach based on their contributions, questions, or feedback.


Have you experimented with any these techniques to improve participation during teaching? We’d love to hear from you! Please email

If you’d like to find out more, email us, or join us in April at Talis Insight Europe 2020 where we will be hearing from Talis Elevate users and getting and an update on the latest developments.

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