Case studies

"The greatest way to learn something is to teach it; you really get tested."

Dr Andrea Sella, Dept of Chemistry

Canvassing student opinions using a textwall

7 August 2013

Dr Paul Walker, Principal School-Facing Teaching Fellow at the Centre for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching (CALT), explains how he uses textwalls and word clouds to quickly gain an impression of students' knowledge or opinions.

Wordcloud example

The concept

Students submit words or phrases related to a particular topic or question via text, email or the web. These are then displayed on a 'textwall' and a word cloud can subsequently be generated to visually summarise the information.

How it works

It's often a good idea to get students to collect their current ideas about a subject, for a number of good teaching reasons, for example:

  • To get them to realise that their collective knowledge and/or experience is a valuable resource
  • To demonstrate that they have assumptions or misconceptions which are impeding deeper understanding
  • To get them to explore the richness of a phenomenon or concept

It's fairly easy in a small group situation to gather inputs to a shared space like a flipchart or whiteboard, but less practical in a lecture or similar large group event. If one asks for some representative inputs, only a few can be gathered with practicality by conventional means like question and answer. Even in written forms like sticky notes, the mechanics of collecting inputs makes it impractical.

However, I've recently tried a tool called ‘Textwall’, which UCL has subscribed to, and had good outcomes. The idea is that messages can be submitted via SMS, email or web post and are displayed in real time as a list on a webpage. This could be good for posting questions or comments during the session, but the extra touch is that you can simply submit all of the text received at any point to form a word cloud, with the more frequently occuring inputs displayed more prominently.

I have used this for instance to gather together all of the various connotations of 'professionalism', or to get an overview of all of the skills and qualities that research students think that they will need to succeed during and after their degree programmes. Usually I get the students to confer in small groups and then one person from each group submits an agreed list on behalf of everyone. With the number of smartphones, tablets and laptops around, this is entirely feasible.

The helpful thing about this is that everyone's input is represented, rather than just the one or two that there might be time to hear from in a lecture. The word cloud offers a pictorial view of the collected inputs and much can be explored in considering the patterns apparent, for instance prominent preconceptions of learning and development needs, or an emerging taxonomy of skills and qualities. It’s simple but effective as a way of stimulating dialogue around key ideas.

One thing to watch out for in using the word cloud feature is that words which are similar but not identical will be displayed separately rather than aggregated into a more prominent typeface. If you want to rely on this display for indicating higher and lower frequencies of occurrence, some kind of conditioning of the inputs will be needed without overly constraining the students. Perhaps developing a starter list of keywords from which they can select the ten most important would be helpful. But I found that having everyone's inputs represented in a quick real-time process increased the general engagement in subsequent discussion. I did it on my own, but if you were wanting to do something fancy with the inputs, like an initial formation of a list of candidate words and a quasi-voting process in a second pass, having a colleague there for that part might be good.

Further information 

Page last modified on 28 aug 13 16:17


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