Teaching metrics using EVS (Electronic Voting System) handsets

Assessment, E-Learning, Poetry, The Subject Centre in Scotland

Brief Descriptionhandsets picture

“Arts-side departments have been slower to see the possibilities of using EVS in teaching; there is now an opportunity for English to lead innovation in this area.”

This project is a pilot scheme for developing possible uses of electronic voting system (EVS) handsets in English Literature lectures. Handsets have proved a very effective teaching aid in large-group contexts in other disciplines, but their use has not yet been explored in literary pedagogy. The handsets allow students to participate directly, anonymously and interactively in lectures by answering multiple-choice questions on the lecture material, seeing how their own understanding of the material compares with that of their peers, and registering reflections on their learning experience. In turn, the lecturer can alter his/her teaching immediately based on the students’ responses to questions, which can range from basic and factual to sophisticated and designed to initiate discussion.

This initial project will use the topic of metrical analysis to open an investigation of the potential of handset use in large-group teaching. The topic is often perceived by students as difficult and anxiety-inducing; by introducing a novel, interactive and anonymous method of engaging with the material and undergoing rapid formative assessment, students will be encouraged to develop confidence and expertise. Metrical analysis, which begins with learning simple, objective information and progresses to interpretative activities, is particularly suited to teaching using this innovative medium.

Aims and Objectives


  • To introduce colleagues to the use of EVS handsets in literary teaching situations;
  • to initiate other larger-scale projects using EVS handsets in teaching literature;
  • to explore the role of interactive formative assessment in the context of large-group teaching;
  • to investigate the usefulness of EVS handset-assisted teaching in improving students’ confidence and expertise in metrical analysis of poetry;
  • to disseminate information about the results of the project using an LTSN seminar and publication of an item in the ESC newsletter and at least one journal article.


  • To devise materials for teaching metrical analysis using EVS handsets;
  • to test these materials in practical large-group teaching contexts at the University of Glasgow;
  • to evaluate the effectiveness and accessibility of teaching using EVS handsets via questionnaires prepared by a professional educational evaluator;
  • to analyse the results of the questionnaires, reflect on the value and expandability of the project, and to publicise both results and reflections.


evs_handsetIn semester 1 I would train in use of the technology and prepare the teaching material to be delivered in semester 2. This material would involve planning three lectures for each of two groups of students, one group self-selecting from years 1 and 2 (pre-Honours), the other from years 3 and 4 (Honours). Each course would consist of two lectures to be delivered within ten days of each other and a third to be delivered around two months later as a follow-up and refresher. Each course would be tailored to the general ability level of the students involved and would use as some of its examples poems they are likely to have read in recent modules.

Each lecture would include segments of exposition from the lecturer interspersed with a series of exercises for the students in which they would use their handsets to register responses and opinions. The exercises would be designed
a) to measure the effectiveness of student learning and 
b) to stimulate buzzgroup discussion.
The final lecture would also give students an opportunity to use the handsets to register their reflections on the course.

The handsets, receivers, software and technical assistance is provided free of charge by the University of Glasgow, which is recognised as a centre of excellence for this technology (see Interactive Learning Interest Group website). Handsets are similar to those used on ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ and allow students to answer multiple choice questions. The software running the handsets provides almost instant information for the lecturer about how many of the students have given each of the possible responses; this information can be shown to the students or kept private. Thus the lecturer can adjust the pace of the coverage of the material, give the students immediate feedback about their progress, and (by setting open-ended questions) use student responses to initiate discussion.

This technology seems to be particularly well adapted to teaching metrical analysis, a valuable but often-neglected skill about which students often report disabling anxiety.

Dissemination of the results of this project would be via a seminar for members of the Higher Education Academy, an article in a journal such as the Journal for Computer Assisted Learning, and an article to be submitted to the ESC newsletter.


The rationale for developing innovation in teaching metrical analysis is to reflect on the problems students face when encountering this challenging skill and to seek to improve confidence and expertise by using technology to monitor and confirm progress in surface learning (eg. identifying feet) and to stimulate deep learning (eg. using metrical analysis creatively in close readings). Many students have an uneasy awareness that they lack a mysterious technical skill involved in reading poems, and therefore turn away from poetry altogether. This fear can be overcome by teaching metrics in small-group contexts but few lecturers or institutions can afford to dedicate sufficient time to such specialist teaching. Lectures have proved an ineffective forum for teaching metrics and other close reading skills because the lack of interactivity makes it easy for students to disengage, and because it is very difficult for the lecturer to judge how well the students are learning the material. By using handsets both these problems can be overcome; large groups can become a really effective context for teaching difficult, intricate and (at the later stages of metrical analysis) creative skills.

The broader rationale is to encourage colleagues to explore the possibilities of the use of handsets in teaching literary topics. I hope that by demonstrating one use of the technology I will contribute to stimulating colleagues to consider using handsets in other contexts, particularly where pressures of time and resources necessitate large-group teaching.

Handsets cost around £18 – £20 each to buy, and receivers around £150.

It is neither difficult nor particularly expensive to equip a lecture theatre with EVS technology. A considerable number of manufacturers produce this kind of technology. Handsets cost around £18 – £20 each to buy, and receivers around £150. One receiver is needed per 50 handsets. The software is free and runs on any PC. All this means that an outlay of between £2000 and £2500 will purchase all the equipment needed to use this technology in lecturing to classes of 100 students. At present handsets are being used in at least 15 universities in the UK, with staff in more than a dozen other universities actively involved in exploring pedagogical use of EVS. In almost all instances the technology is in use in science and/or social science departments. Arts-side departments have been slower to see the possibilities of using EVS in teaching; there is now an opportunity for English to lead innovation in this area.


I have been teaching in UK universities since 1992 and have twice spent semesters in the United States as a Visiting Professor. In all these posts teaching poetry has been a major part of my job, and I have always taught metrics as part of the essential close-reading skills necessary for getting to grips with poetry. I have developed a range of techniques for developing students’ confidence, expertise and enthusiasm for metrics.

Margaret Brown, the educational evaluator who will help me design student feedback questionnaires to improve future use of EVS technology in teaching is highly experienced in the field and, in particular, worked in detail over a period of months with Dr Susan Stuart in using EVS handsets in teaching philosophy. She is the joint author of several papers in pedagogical journals on the evaluation of handset-assisted teaching.

Similar Work

Much wider use of EVS handsets in teaching has been made by Science than Arts faculties. Most of the literature available on their use is therefore of limited value to teachers of English Literature. In the last three years more than a dozen papers have been published in international journals of higher education analysing use of EVS technology, mainly in mathematics or physics teaching. It is clear that in the context of large lecture groups EVS handsets can play an important role in keeping students actively engaged. A number of key uses of the technology have been identified and widely discussed, including formative and peer assessment, and building group identity.

In planning this project I have had extremely useful help from Dr Steve Draper, one of the leading British experts in the pedagogical use of EVS technology, and from Dr Susan Stuart (both University of Glasgow), who has used handsets successfully in teaching philosophical logic, with support from the Philosophical and Religious Studies LTSN.


One of the key products will be a seminar for LTSN colleagues at which the EVS handsets will be demonstrated using materials developed during the course of the project and suggestions will be made for other applications of the technology in teaching literature. I would hope to work closely with the LTSN in organising and publicising this seminar, which I have costed as if it were to be hosted at Glasgow University, but which I would be happy to hold at any appropriate location, since the handsets are portable.

The other key product will be publication in one or more HE pedagogical outlets of an article describing the project and reflecting on its results and implications for further innovations.


evs_screenIt seems to be widely agreed within the profession that teaching poetry in general and metrics in particular is becoming increasingly challenging. Students are often unconfident about their close reading skills, believing that there is a mystique surrounding poetry which they cannot penetrate. It would be of considerable benefit to the community to develop ways of increasing student confidence, enthusiasm and facility in reading poetry. This project focuses on one specialised but widely-applicable and worthwhile skill – metrical analysis – as a way of beginning to explore the broader potential for interactive technology in large-group teaching. My intention is not to emphasise metrical analysis at the expense of other skills, but to use it as a way to begin to reflect on the problems students encounter in engaging with poetry and to explore ways in which technology-assisted teaching can make the large-group teaching context an effective one for helping students past these difficulties.

Concretely, I hope that practical demonstrations at which Higher Education Academy Colleagues can see the handsets in use as well as published accounts of the project, its results, and its implications for teaching other literary topics, will encourage colleagues to consider the use of this particular technology and will stimulate reflection on other ways in which technology-assisted teaching in large-group contexts can help students develop confidence, skills and a feeling of community.

Related Web links

Project Leader

Alice Jenkins
Department of English Literature
University of Glasgow