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 a 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 Surveys.
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 implications.
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.
PAPER SURVEY: Like the Roll Call Survey, the Paper Survey also delivers information quickly, but with one distinct advantage: anonymity. The Paper Survey has three steps:
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 implications.
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.
LEARNING CARD SURVEY: Learning Cards are easily the most insightful and beneficial form of instant survey I use. Learning Cards have three steps:
1. Distribute 3×5 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 place on a PowerPoint slide (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 not.
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, Eastern Florida State College, FL