Shhh…  Librarian Goes Online with Live Polling

By Carrie M. Macfarlane, IDL SIG Member

As a librarian, I teach students how to do research. Like any good instructor, I always try to anticipate my students’ needs. What knowledge, skills, and beliefs will they carry with them when they walk in the door? What should they be able to do when they leave?

If you’re familiar with the librarian stereotype, you might be surprised to hear that once I’ve identified my students’ needs, I use technology to meet them. Yes, I love books and I wear glasses. The librarian stereotype definitely applies to me. But the stereotype needs to be updated, and I’m here to help. That cardigan-clad woman cradling an armful of old books? She likes technology!

In my previous essay about the librarian stereotype, I described how technology allows me to interact with students before a research workshop. Here, I’ll discuss how technology helps me to interact with students after a workshop begins. I learned this technique from a coworker–I’m far from the only librarian who teaches with technology! If you’re a technical trainer, you might want to adapt it to your workshops, too.

What I Teach

I find a variety of attitudes toward learning about library research in my classes. A few students are eager and inquisitive–for them, digging up good sources is a mystery that they’re keen to solve. Some students have done research before and assume there isn’t much more to learn. Other students haven’t done research before and are reluctant to reveal this.

When I teach first-year students, one of my goals is self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is a psychological theory that suggests people are more likely to succeed if they believe in themselves. I want students to recognize that there are things about library research that they don’t yet know, and then I want them to believe that they can learn those things. Turning uncertainty into motivation is essential not only for research, but also for adult learning in general.

How I Use Technology

Self-efficacy is a lofty goal for a library research workshop, and I usually only have about an hour to achieve it. How do I do it? With technology. Specifically, I use live online polling.

Let me pause here for a note about accessibility. I’m about to describe an example of a live online visual poll. It’s worked well in classes where there were no students with visual impairments. I always plan my workshops in consultation with the professor who requests the workshop. If I learned from a faculty collaborator that a visual poll might not be suitable, I’d discuss the possibility of a text-only poll. I’ll say more about text-only polls later.

For visual polls, I show students a collection of photos, and I ask them to pick one that represents their research process. I explain that I’m referring to all kinds of research, from browsing JSTOR, a scholarly database, to mining Google for movie reviews. After the students gather their thoughts with a partner, they each select a photo in the poll. The class watches the poll results roll in. When the numbers stop changing, I ask a few students to explain their responses. Later, as I teach, I refer back to what the students have said.

Here’s what the poll results can look like:

Poll:  Which picture represents your research process?

In this poll, there are four photos:  an empty highway stretching to the horizon, a dog wearing pink glasses, a soccer cleat resting on a ball, and a mug of coffee on a red clock face. Half of the students have chosen the road, a quarter have chosen the dog, and the rest have chosen the soccer ball. (Apparently, none of these students rely on caffeine as much as this librarian does!)

What would I do with these results? Let’s say a student who chose the road explained that when they do research, they follow a straight path from start to finish. Later, when I describe my own research process, I might invite this student to compare their linear process with mine, which is somewhat circular and iterative. If a student who chose the dog in pink glasses said that all their search results always look interesting, then when I do a sample search, I could commiserate with this student about how easy it is to get distracted by irrelevant articles. If a student who chose the soccer ball said it reminds them of juggling research topic ideas, then I would point out how search filters help me narrow my topic.

That’s how a visual poll would work. Poll Everywhere, the tool I use, supports alternative text in clickable image polls, but for maximum accessibility, it recommends text-based multiple choice polls. If I determined during my planning process that a text-only poll would be a better fit for a class, I’d probably present a selection of pithy and amusing quotes. Like the photos, each quote would allow more than one interpretation. For example, the poll choices might include “Everything I know, I’ve learned from dogs,” or “I’ve never scored a goal without getting a pass from someone else,” or maybe “Coffee has given me unrealistic expectations of productivity.”

Why this Works

How does technology contribute to my success in these workshops? It allows me to use principles from the psychology of learning and instructional design.

When students evaluate how the elements in the photographs resemble the elements of their research processes, they’re connecting visual information with textual information. This is called dual coding, and it’s an effective instructional technique because it gives students two ways to remember what they learn.

When the students think about how they’ve done research in the past, they’re activating prior knowledge. Activating prior knowledge is like mixing compost into the garden. In the same way that the compost creates ideal growing conditions, my poll creates ideal learning conditions. The poll reminds students of what they already know, and that prior knowledge serves as fertile ground for new knowledge.

When the students are reminded that they already know something about doing research, they grow receptive to learning more. This is the theory of self-efficacy in action. It may sound counterintuitive, but it works. In after-class assessments, here’s what students have said they’ve learned:

  • how to set realistic expectations (research is a process and the first search will almost never be the last)
  • how to select relevant sources
  • how to narrow a search
  • how to get help


Firefighters are muscle-bound men, programmers are genius introverts, and librarians are Luddite bookworms. We hear references to occupational stereotypes like these in the media, in the movies, and even in conversations with our colleagues and friends. We know the stereotypes aren’t necessarily true, but we remember them.

I love books, and my students do too! I would never suggest excising books from the classic librarian stereotype. But is there room for technology, too? I’m biased, so I need to ask you. Next time you think of librarians, might books and live online polling come to mind?

Should You Give this a Try? A Quick Look

What Kinds of Situations Might this Work For?

Learning Situations Why
when some or all learners work remotely The poll is accessible from any device connected to the internet. Learners can be moved to breakout rooms to gather their thoughts with a partner.
when there is a mixture of novice and experienced learners Novice learners are reassured that they have relevant experience. Experienced learners have an opportunity to tell me what they know.
when a non-cringey ice-breaker is needed As long as the topic of the poll is related to the topic of the workshop, people can get to know one another without sharing stories from their extracurricular lives.


What Technology Is Needed?

End Product Technology
poll ●      Free web-based polling software, for example Poll Everywhere (

●      Free web-based image collections, for example Pexels (

assessment ●      Google Forms
classroom ●      podium computer

●      projection

●      individual workstations or mobile devices