Many students refrain from asking questions in class, for fear of negative judgment (Cooper et al. 2018; Dillon 1988; Nadile et al. 2021). Research has further emphasized that members of historically marginalized groups—in the STEM fields in particular, this includes African Americans and women—are especially likely to feel uncomfortable speaking in class (Laufer 2012; Nadile et al. 2021).
Clickers were an early attempt to address these issues with technology (see Caldwell 2007; Martyn 2007; and Stevens et al. 2017). Originally, clickers were primarily response systems—the instructor asks a question and students answer it with the click of a button, anonymously or not. While clickers can be a communication tool, an evaluation tool, or an attempt to enforce presence and attention, more flexible internet-based systems have been proposed recently. The “Backchannel” project led by Perry Samson at the University of Michigan (see Beydoun 2019) is one example, as is a commercial product for K–12 students created by PollEverywhere.
We have developed our own web-based app for this purpose, called Bagel Institute, freely available at https://bagel.institute. The app was created by the second author, and has been used in mathematics classes taught by the first author at Tufts University for the past two years. It is deliberately simple for students and instructors, and allows students to ask and answer questions before, during, or after class. Depending on an instructor-selected setting, students’ responses are anonymous to everybody (the preferred setting), or anonymous to their classmates but not the instructor.
We think of Bagel Institute as a tool for communication, not evaluation. It is not commercial, and we aren’t trying to persuade anybody to use it. We are suggesting that some form of easy-to-use, anonymous, real-time communication channel between students and instructor is a useful idea, and in recent years, such channels have become increasingly possible. We report on the first author’s experience using Bagel Institute in mathematics classes at Tufts between 2020 and 2022 and address some potential pitfalls. Overall, however, Tufts students have been nearly uniformly enthusiastic about Bagel Institute.
You can see the app at https://bagel.institute. Creating an account only takes seconds. There are two features, “Ask” and “Answer,” named from the students’ point of view: “Ask” allows students to ask questions, “Answer” allows them to answer questions that the instructor poses.
Figure 1 shows the interface from the instructor’s viewpoint. When clicking “Ask,” the instructor sees a page like that in Figure 2, inviting them to create a new “question basket.” From the student’s viewpoint, the question basket might look like Figure 3. Bagel Institute allows students and instructors to use LaTeX, the word processing system widely used for technical writing in STEM fields.
Clicking “Answer” in Figure 1, you would land on a page like Figure 4. After you press “Create 1 question,” students see what is shown in Figure 5.
We have used Bagel Institute in these courses:
Observations gathered in the (mostly undergraduate) courses listed above
You can monitor questions on any screen—laptop, tablet, smart phone. All students see all questions as they come in, but not who is asking. We have found that it is best to set aside specific times during class for Bagel Institute questions; don’t answer them the moment they come in. This keeps the flow of the course and allows you to save time by grouping similar questions together.
It is helpful to use a special, separate question basket for administrative questions. Otherwise, when you ask for questions about what has been discussed in the past twenty minutes, you’ll get questions like “Could we extend the homework deadline until Monday?”
A few students occasionally complain about the “stupid questions” that their classmates ask, which they found slow down the class. (These have been offline complaints; we have never seen any such complaint appear on Bagel Institute directly.) We view this as a teachable moment, and have addressed the concern directly in class, explaining why each question deserves respect.
We have found it helpful to ask very simple questions using the “Answer” feature. The students remain more engaged by being given opportunities to participate without being overwhelmed. Sometimes what is meant to be a very simple question turns out not to be so simple for your students, and that this lack of engagement conveys valuable information to you.
Even anonymously, by no means do all students answer the instructor’s questions. It helps to say, “If you don’t have any idea how to answer my question, let that be your answer—you are making a valuable contribution to class by letting me know.”
The lack of an answer, of course, also sometimes means “I don’t care enough to participate.” This, too, is important for an instructor to know.
We used the tool much the same way in online classes as in in-person courses. In online Calculus II, Bagel Institute was especially appreciated by most students, since the barrier to asking questions is even greater online than in person. Many students told us that the use of an anonymous channel made participation much easier for them, and thereby kept them engaged.
We are not suggesting Bagel Institute as an alternative to breakout rooms, which we have found to be an effective tool for facilitating engagement online, but as an addition, to be used during lecture segments of the class.
An observation about in-person teaching
Some students hesitated to type questions into the computer, perhaps because that signals to others that the student is confused. The number of questions we received went up when we emphasized that “Bagel Institute does not only help clear up confusion but is also intended for comments and questions going beyond what we discuss here.” This encouraged some students to think harder, take a step back, and ask bigger-picture questions, for instance: “In your analysis of two interacting nerve cells you made the idealizing assumption that synaptic pulses have zero duration. Is a similar analysis possible without that assumption?”
An observation specifically about our graduate class
In our small graduate class, “Ask” was not popular. We abandoned it after a while. A typical student comment was, “We can ask our questions out loud in class.” (However, not all of them did.)
In such courses, we still plan to use “Ask” in the future, but it may be especially important not to let it “disrupt the flow”—that is, to group questions, and answer them at times specially set aside. In our experience, graduate students are more able and more eager to process longer, more complex lines of reasoning without interruption than students in undergraduate classes.
“Answer” proved equally helpful at any level.
Not another electronic tool!
From the technology point of view, Bagel Institute has almost no learning curve to speak of. There is of course effort required to learn how to use an anonymous communication channel most effectively, and this will very much depend on the subject of your class and your individual teaching style. The suggestions given here are intended to help begin that learning process.
Doesn’t this encourage students to go online in class?
Bagel Institute makes students more, not less engaged in class. In any case, we cannot enforce attention. We must entice students to pay attention, by including them and pacing the class appropriately.
What about offensive postings?
The instructor can remove any posting with the click of a button, and switch to “Only the instructor, not fellow students, can see who asked each question” going forward. (This switch cannot be made retroactively. When it is made, the students are notified on their screens.) In two years of using the app, neither of these precautions has ever been needed. Nonetheless, having them remains a good idea.
Does this disrupt the flow and slow down the pace?
If the instructor responds to incoming questions immediately, we have found that it does disrupt the flow. We recommended using the app to let questions accumulate and answer them in batches. After 15–20 minutes, you do want to hear what’s really going on in the heads of your students! Use of the app may indeed slow down the pace because the instructor will become clearer about the things that students struggle with, and slowing down in such a situation is likely a good thing (Doghonadze 2016; Vogel and Schwabe 2016).
Bagel Institute promotes honest communication and clarity about what students do and don’t understand, how they think, and, most importantly perhaps, what they do or don’t find interesting. To the first author, based on his classroom experience with Bagel Institute, this seems invaluable.
Student reactions at Tufts University have been almost uniformly enthusiastic. The much more important question is, of course, whether the tool leads to better and longer-lasting learning. We have not yet attempted to study this question in a rigorous way, nor even to define precisely what we would mean by “better and longer-lasting learning.”
Nevertheless, as we have mentioned, using this sort of tool does not only have the potential of leading to better learning, but may also result in greater inclusiveness. It allows some students who feel that they don’t belong into the classroom to express themselves without fear.