I’ve taught college-level classes since
1988, and the longer I teach, the more I realize that open communication among
students and between students and their teacher is the key ingredient of a
healthy classroom. Like any instructor, I’ve had my share of challenging
students and dysfunctional classes: non-participators, off-task talkers, rebels,
jokesters, those who didn’t want to be there, and those who decided they
didn’t like me (and my subject and their classmates). I have tried a
variety of techniques to overcome the tension created from my reaction to these
students: clear rules, private conferences, and humor. These techniques
have their place, but they lack the effectiveness I have found in Instant
Instant Surveys can be used in any classroom
or group and, as you will see, for a variety of purposes, but their central
benefit is the open and instant communication they allow, which fosters
understanding and trust among the students and between the students and teacher.
For convenience, I’ve classified the surveys into three types: Roll Call,
Paper, and Learning Cards.
ROLL CALL SURVEY:
I learned the Roll Call Survey from Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional
Intelligence. The survey works like this:
1. Pose a short-answer question.
2. Instruct students to answer the question
when their name is called during classroom attendance.
3. Debrief by discussing results and
In my Success Strategies course, where I use
the On Course text, I recently conducted the Roll Call Survey during the
Emotional Intelligence chapter. I asked students to answer the roll by
rating their present emotional state on a scale of 1-10 (one being completely
depressed and ten being ecstatic). I also asked them to state one word
that would capture the emotion behind the number. The results showed a
number of 5 through 7 scores, with responses like “okay,” “tired,” or
“good.” However, there were also extremes (“Two…Sad” and
“Ten…Jammin’!”) that fostered encouraging and caring remarks from me and
their peers. By completing this instant survey, students were made aware
of their emotions, the language we use to name them, and, through discussion,
how their emotions affect their ability to learn. It also helped students
become aware of each other, celebrating the positive and empathizing with the
negative. Plus, doing the survey sent the message that I think their
emotions are important.
I’ve also used the Roll Call Survey to
measure my students’ confidence in assignments, stress levels at midterm, and
motivation in school.
Like the Roll Call Survey, the Paper Survey also delivers information quickly,
but with one distinct advantage: anonymity. The Paper Survey has three
1. Take a piece of notebook paper and tear
it into 1-inch tabs, distribute a tab to each student.
2. Ask a short-answer question you want
surveyed and have the students write the answer on the paper, anonymously.
3. Collect the paper, tabulate immediately
in front of the class, and report results.
4. Debrief by discussing class results and
In a freshman composition class, before
students wrote their first diagnostic, non-graded in-class writing, I
distributed the tabs of paper and asked them to rate—1 (low) to 10
(high)—their level of anxiety over the writing they were about to produce.
I collected their ratings and, standing at the podium, laid the paper tabs out
before me, asking the class what they thought the average level of anxiety would
be. The students were engaged, guessing high and low levels. I
reported the results—“Here’s a five, a four, a seven”—and then which
ratings had the most votes. In a matter of a minute we had a measure of
the range of stress they were experiencing. I was amazed at how anxious so
many of them were. There were a number of 7s, 8s, and even a 9 (over a
non-graded assignment!). Once I understood and they understood about the
shared anxiety, we talked about it—why it happens, how learning is a
risk-taking adventure, why anxiety is normal, and techniques needed to defuse
it. The survey also informed me that I needed to take extra care in
preparing my students for future writing assignments.
Another time I used the Paper Survey was in
Success Strategies when we were discussing personal responsibility from the On
Course text. We had read the Louise Hay line, “We are each 100%
responsible for all of our experiences,” and I asked if we create our own
experiences. To exemplify that we all interpret events through our own
lens, I handed out tabs of paper and instructed students to anonymously rate
their level of interest in what we were talking about at that moment. A
rating of 1 indicated no interest at all; a rating of 10 meant life changing.
Again, at the podium, I reported the ratings as I unfolded the paper. Most
rated their level of interest between 5 and 7, but there were also two 3s and
two 10s. I asked my students what this said about how we experience the
world. Everyone had witnessed the same discussion, yet we were
experiencing it differently. Their answer: we control our experience.
This carried into a conversation about why certain subjects are important to
some people and not others; how expectations, past experience, and attitude
influence learning; and if we had the means to change our perceptions how it
might affect our success.
SURVEY: Learning Cards are easily the most insightful and beneficial
form of instant survey I use. Learning Cards have three steps:
1. Distribute 3x5 cards, ask a
question, give students a few minutes to anonymously write the answer on the
card, collect the cards (5 minutes).
2. Type the students’ responses and
either make copies or an overhead (5-10 minutes).
3. Show the responses in the next
class and discuss (5–15 minutes).
In my Success Strategies class, I used
Learning Cards during the Lifelong Learning section of “On Course.” I
distributed cards and asked students to anonymously write what they had learned
in class that day: i.e., learned, re-learned, understood more fully, realized,
or connected to their life. If they hadn’t learned anything, I
encouraged them to say so (the anonymity gave them this freedom), or if they had
a question about something we did in class, they could ask the question.
The results were useful on a couple of levels. First, students saw the
spectrum of learning they and their classmates had experienced, which led to
discussions of how we learn differently. They also saw the range of importance
the material had for their class members: from self-realizations to no learning
at all. I received one “I didn’t learn anything today” comment,
which garnered a lot of judgment (“How could someone not learn anything?”),
but also prompted discussion on learning: when we’re ready to learn, why we
tune out, etc. The Learning Card activity also helped me gauge what kind
of learning was happening in the classroom, what was reaching them and what was
Another anonymous Learning Card survey I use
is to find out the mental/physical/ emotional level of my students. In
Success Strategies, for example, I may ask, “How are you doing in school?”
or “How is your personal life?” These questions are set up by asking
them to go beyond “good,” “okay,” “not so great,” by sharing
whatever is on their minds—worries, triumphs, fears. This type of
Learning Card survey takes a little longer to type up, and some of the longer
responses will need to be edited (with ellipses to show deletions). But
the comments prove to be powerful discussion prompts that quickly lead students
into the land of insights and possibilities.
I’ve saved the best for last. This
trouble-shooting Learning Card prompt can right some of the most off-kilter
class situations we are likely to come across. The question is “How is
this class going for you?” A great example of when I used this prompt
was in a speech class I taught. I asked my students to be honest, to let
me know what was or wasn’t working for them in the class, and I told them to
ask questions if they needed clarification about anything—assignments,
policies, feedback. I distributed the cards, but I noticed one student was
writing his comment on a piece of notebook paper. I had an idea why.
The student, who had been an engaged learner in the classroom, had grown sullen
after receiving what he considered a poor grade on a speech. His
participation had gone from enthusiastic to passive aggressive. So I knew
he wanted the paper because the card wasn’t big enough. Class was over
and he was still writing—on the backside of the paper! When I went back
to my office, I read his comment: a two-page vent, questioning my grading
criteria. I typed up all the comments, abbreviating when necessary, and
copied them to a transparency, which I showed the next day. It was a
wonderful experience. Students expressed their fear of speaking, their
frustrations in writing speeches; they questioned my policies and, as with the
frustrated student, how I graded. I answered the questions, but to my
surprise, they also offered their own answers and suggestions and empathy to one
another. Instead of defending policies or how I evaluate, I explained my
reasoning with my students’ help. By no means were all Learning Card
responses negative either; in fact, most focused on the positive—how
comfortable they were in the class, how it was the only class where they knew
everyone’s name, how they were overcoming their nerves, and how they actually
looked forward to the class. The review of their comments eased tensions
and enabled understanding. Best of all, my disgruntled student completely
changed. After that class he went back to the engaged class member he’d
been before our misunderstanding. Not surprisingly, he earned an “A”
in the class that term. I wonder how successful he would have been without
that Learning Card review.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Instant Surveys serve
a greater purpose than opening lines of communication: they help break down the
barrier of “us” against “them.” By offering students a voice and
an audience, we validate their experiences and create an atmosphere of caring.
When this occurs, a special transformation takes place in our students’
eyes—instead of being their adversaries, we become their advocates.
--Mark McBride, Faculty, English, Speech,
and College Success, Brevard
To read another article on surveys, click HERE.
* * * * *
The ON COURSE NEWSLETTER publishes innovative strategies for helping students become active, responsible learners. To subscribe to this bi-weekly (monthly in the summer) e-newsletter, click here and send the resulting e-mail. No need to type anything. Our computer will automatically add your return address to the list of subscribers. You're always in charge of your subscription, with a subscribe/unsubscribe link in every newsletter. Have a best practice to share? Click here and request our publication guidelines.