Frequently Asked Questions

Why was Braincandy created and how is it different?

Braincandy was created to support students in talking through differences of opinion. To do so, students must first be willing to share their thoughts. However, traditional schooling often establishes a classroom culture where students only share their thinking once they think they have a final answer, raise their hand, and are subsequently called upon by the teacher to talk. This is where Braincandy comes in by providing students multiple channels to share their thinking ANONYMOUSLY. With anonymity, students are more likely to share their ideas when teachers prompt them with questions hosted by the platform. With more student responses than a traditional show of hands, Braincandy then provides multiple visualization tools for the class to see the thoughts of their fellow peers. Seeing these differences of opinion can motivate students to engage with each other in pursuit of classroom consensus [see answer to the FAQ regarding classroom argumentation].

The Braincandy platform is different than other student response technologies for several main reasons. For one, the Braincandy project was founded on the belief that it is the QUESTION, as opposed to the bells and whistles of the technology, that is more important to spark classroom talk. Without effective questions, opportunities for classroom talk are scarce even with the flashiest technology.

With a focus on effective questions, the Braincandy system provides a database for teachers to review how questions perform, as well as the ability to provide feedback and share questions with other teachers that use Braincandy.

In order to have effective analytics on how Braincandy questions perform, this leads to another major difference between Braincandy and other online polling platforms – pricing. Quite simply, the analytics on Braincandy questions thrive with as many users as possible, and so the Braincandy project is committed to making the system freely accessible to teachers and students for as long as possible. Furthermore, students don’t need an account, as classroom sessions only require the teacher to be logged in.

How can Braincandy support classroom argumentation?

Anonymity creates a lower-stakes environment where more students participate than through a more traditional show of hands. With more student responses, Braincandy then provides multiple visualization tools (e.g., showing histograms of voting results; displaying word clouds) for students to see the thoughts of their fellow peers. Seeing these differences of opinion can motivate students to engage with each other in pursuit of classroom consensus. After all, each student knows how they responded, and when it is made visible that some peers think differently, it can be motivating for a student to explore the discrepancy between their thinking and that of others.

Student willingness to forego their anonymity doesn’t happen instantly, however. After showing students that differences in thinking exist, it can help to solicit follow-up questions and/or ask students to unpack their thinking through the Scribble Pad feature. This allows the argument to develop with students still feeling the safety of anonymity. Then, gradually, encourage students to share their thinking with others – preferably small groups at first. A key here is that when using Braincandy visualization tools to show a lack of classroom consensus, put the onus on the students to work out the consensus with each other. It can be tempting as a teacher to settle the disagreement quickly. Don’t. Empower the students to try and reach consensus by talking to each other.

Does the culture of Braincandy classrooms change over time?

At first students are more prone to unpack their thinking with the anonymous channels provided by the Braincandy platform. However, anonymous responses can slowly transition into small-group discussion [see answer to the FAQ regarding classroom argumentation]. Repeated opportunities for small-group discussion makes students increasingly willing to talk out loud during earlier stages in their thinking – certainly more so than when a teacher asks a student to provide an answer to the entire class. This changes the function and general culture about talk in the classroom, i.e., sharing thinking through talk is part of all stages of thinking, and not just reserved for when a student is confident in sharing their thinking in its “final form.”

Over time, the Braincandy platform becomes less and less necessary for students to engage in classroom talk. Indeed, student willingness to “think out loud” in small groups can eventually transition into whole-class discussion and debate. When it comes to classroom culture, think of Braincandy as a scaffold for student willingness to share their thinking through talk, both increasingly with others and at increasingly more stages in the thinking process.

What are effective ways for teachers to frame to their students the purpose and benefits of Braincandy?

Raising your hand and speaking out in class can be intimidating for students. For example, sometimes students are confused, but irrationally convince themselves that they must be the only student in class that is confused. Tell your students that, chances are, if someone is confused then likely other students are confused as well. Then, tell them that Braincandy is a tool that allows students to express their confusion at any time, and do so with the safety of anonymity. Furthermore, tell your students that in addition to Braincandy providing multiple ways to anonymously communicate with the teacher, it also provides ways for students to share ideas with each other, again under the safety that comes with being anonymous. In short, teachers should frame Braincandy as a tool that allows students to raise their hand and have a voice in class without actually having to raise their hand and speak out loud in front of everyone.

Any suggestions for the first time you use Braincandy in class?

Ask a fun, light-spirited, open-ended question such as, “Describe a fun thing(s) you did during your summer/spring break?” You’ll be surprised how nearly every student provides a response. Typing in an anonymous response via a web-enabled device is far less intimidating and therefore more accessible for students than a show of hands. Not only will you get nearly every student sharing a response, but the Braincandy platform provides you with multiple ways to display those responses so that students can see what others have shared, without compromising anonymity. So, when you start with light-hearted questions, students will often provide fun answers, and when they see these answers there is often classroom laughter. This first impression for students that Braincandy is a fun change of pace can set the stage for students looking forward to increasing numbers of Braincandy sessions in the future.

What is key to an effective question?

Braincandy was developed in science classrooms, but the affordances of the platform are applicable to education writ large. Regardless of the topic, Braincandy can help spark classroom talk insofar as questions are designed to promote a little bit of classroom uncertainty. If your questions are multiple choice, for example, argumentation is more likely when some of the answer choices reflect ways in which students really think about a topic. With a traditional show of hands, if a student is not confident in their answer they may not answer at all. In contrast, if a student sees an answer choice that reflects how they think about a topic, and this is coupled with a low-stakes environment in which their answer choice is anonymous, they are more likely to go with their gut and submit vote for that answer. Hence, the many more student responses you get to questions hosted through the Braincandy platform than you would with a traditional show of hands.

If you can base some of the possible answer choices to a Braincandy question on different ways that your experience as a teacher has shown you that students can think about a topic, you’re likely going to have multiple answer choices receiving votes. Questions that promote at least two different popular answers are the most productive questions in terms of ultimately promoting classroom talk. In contrast, if a question generates a consensus response right from the get go, there likely isn’t much for students to subsequently talk about other than express their agreement. In short, the most effective Braincandy questions are the ones that spark disagreement. While writing such questions is much easier said than done, the Braincandy question database provides analytics on how students have answered questions in the past. This allows you to search for Braincandy questions which elicit the all-important uncertainty that sets the stage for classroom talk.

Can Braincandy be used for research?

Absolutely! Answers to every Braincandy question are databased in perpetuity. This creates a wealth of data on student thinking. For essentially any intervention that an educator wishes to test, they can use Braincandy in classrooms both with and without that intervention. Databased student thinking can then be compared to look for differences between classrooms that did and did not receive the intervention under study. Braincandy isn’t just a technology that makes students more willing to share their thinking, but it is also a powerful tool for recording and databasing that thinking. The result is a wealth of data, and when there’s data, there’s potential for research.

Are there Braincandy features that you think teachers should use more often?

Teachers often use their dashboard to review student comments and answers as they come in. This is true formative assessment, and it can be powerful for teachers in determining how to proceed with a lesson. However, it can be just as powerful for students to be able to review this information as well. This is where Braincandy “backchannel” features can be utilized. For example, teachers have the ability to share the same information they are receiving with every student screen as well. Hence, students are privy to the “backchannel” conversation happening during a lesson.

Think for a moment about how classroom conversations often proceed. Classroom norms commonly develop where, after a teacher poses a question, there is often a period of silence followed by usually a small number of students that are confident enough to break the silence. This means that this same small cast of students gets to repeatedly set the course for classroom conversations. With Braincandy backchannel features (e.g., tools in the upper right corner of the teacher dashboard that begin with the description “Show …”), more students get a chance to contribute their thoughts anonymously prior to the start of the conversation. When everyone can see all these contributions, teachers can point to specific answers/comments (e.g., displayed on a projector screen) and ask the class to react.

Not only does this provide more possible conversation starters from a broader representation of the classroom, but it also makes it much easier to encourage an important skill that students often shy away from – CRITIQUE. Indeed, it is much easier to get students to articulate what they find insufficient with the thought of a peer if the contribution of that peer is anonymous. It follows that encouraging students to critique some of the ideas displayed via Braincandy backchannel features can help establish a classroom culture that values not only why right answers are right, but also why wrong answers are wrong.