Creating a Classroom Backchannel for Student Questions Using Top Hat

How to create a classroom backchannel for student questions using Top Hat

Instructional Challenge

A backchannel is a place where students can record comments, ask questions, even have on-task conversations while the class is engaged in an activity. A backchannel can support instruction in several ways, two of which stand out: 

  1. Students can voice a problem, learning barrier, or question at a distance. Typically, a student might raise his/her hand while working on a problem and the instructor or teaching assistant might come over and work individually and privately with the student on the problem or question.
  2. Students can ask questions and signal gaps in understanding without bringing them to the attention of the entire class. An anonymous backchannel can provide a safe way for a student to signal a question or gap in knowledge without exposing his/her identity to the class.

Setting Up Top Hat Course Spaces for Classroom Backchannel

Top Hat is a Student Response System (SRS) that allows you to ask questions, take polls, give quizzes, and receive feedback from your students during class. Top Hat is a bring-your-own-device solution, which means that students can use any web-enabled device (laptop, tablets, smartphones) to participate. It also allows for text messaging to submit answers, so students can use older or flip cell phones as well. Alongside the paid version of Top Hat (Pro), a free version called Top Hat (Basic) is starting this Fall 2020 semester. In this free version, some features will not be available to users that will be available for paid versions. Be aware that Top Hat (Basic) does not extend or include the integration of results into the Canvas grade book, and therefore, results of the Top Hat discussions are for the use of classroom facilitation of discussions alone and not for the formal allocation of participation points.

  1. From a web browser, go to
  2. Select the Sign-up link in the upper right side of the screen.
  3. Click Professor.
  4. Select the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
  5. Select the Next button.
  6. Authenticate with UW-Madison NetID login credentials
    1. If you have not created a Top Hat account before, you will be prompted to do so. Note: the password you enter only used on the Top Hat mobile app. You will continue to use your NetID credentials to log into Top Hat on your computer. When all fields are entered, select "I agree with the terms and conditions" and select Next.
  7. If you have not created a Top Hat space, Select Create Course.
    1. Enter the course name, course start date, subject, and course code.
    2. Select Create.

Creating a Backchannel in Top Hat Using Discussion Question Type

  1. Under the Courses menu, you will see your &Top Hat courses. Select the Enter link to the right of the course name.
  2. Select the Create button to create a new discussion question.
  3. Select Discussion from the Create Content section.
  4. Under Title, enter Classroom Backchannel.
  5. In the topic space, enter "Enter a question you have that you want to be addressed in class. All posts are anonymous." This will display on the screen on the screen when you present the question to students.
  6. As grading is not supported in the free version of Top Hat (Basic), information added to the Grading Options is not relevant.
  7. Under Response Options, Responses can be seen by..., select Everyone. This will allow all students to see the responses of others.
  8. Under Response Options, Participants are anonymous to... select Participants only so the results will be anonymous to students, but you can track comments back to students. This will prevent students from making inappropriate comments in the backchannel.
  9. Click Save.

Setting Up Students in Top Hat

Before using Top Hat, it is recommended that students be guided through the registration and account setup before your first use in the classroom. Create a Canvas activity that walks them through the following steps before coming to class.

  1. Go to
  2. Click on the Sign-Up link in the upper right side of the screen.
  3. Click Student.
  4. Enter the six-digit Top Hat course code. (Note: You can find their course code in Top Hat below their course name (ex. Join Code: 123456).
  5. Log in with your UW-Madison login credentials.
  6. If you are going to be using a mobile phone or tablet device, you should download the Top Hat application and follow the login process. When searching for institutions, type in Madison and University of Wisconsin - Madison will be listed.

Starting the Backchannel

  1. Direct students to either use their laptops or mobile phones to interact with the classroom backchannel.
    1. If using their laptops, direct them to They will authenticate and enter your Top Hat  course.
    2. If using their mobile phone, have them enter the course code and log into the system with their UW-Madison login credentials.
  2. Log in to your Top Hat account on your laptop and enter your course space.
  3. Assign a student to be the backchannel monitor. Check with the monitor from time to time, or direct them to make you aware of questions as they come in.
  4. Select the Classroom Backchannel question(s) by clicking on the square to the left of the questions.
  5. At the start of the course, open up the Classroom Backchannel question by clicking the Present button at the top right corner of the screen. Be aware the Assign function will not be available on Top Hat (Basic).
  6. The Join Code screen will appear. Click Start Presentation to release question(s) to students.
  7. Students will see the backchannel listed under Questions and Attendance.
  8. Students can post a question by clicking the Reply button. Click Post to send it. It will be displayed on their and your screens.
  9. Because the question was set up to hide participants' names from students, each post will be displayed with Hidden. On your laptop, clicking on Hidden will reveal the student identity of the post. Students will not be able to reveal this information on their screens.
  10. While responses are being displayed, other students can like a post and comment on it using their devices.

Other Resources

See Also:

Keywords:top hat, backchannel, back channel   Doc ID:104806
Owner:Timmo D.Group:Center for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
Created:2020-08-10 12:24 CDTUpdated:2021-08-20 12:58 CDT
Sites:Center for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring, Learn@UW-Madison
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