August 17, 2022

Giving students a survey on the first day? Think about what you are asking, and why

Posted by Laura Guertin

Faculty are gearing up for another semester of instruction, and many are eager to get to know more about their students. Knowing more about the students enrolled in a course can assist an instructor with customizing course content, method of instruction, student expectations, and so much more. Institutions such as Carnegie Mellon University offer resources for the first day of class and suggestions for ways to collect baseline data on and from students. There is a high school version of a first day survey compiled by California State University, Northridge.

SERC has an entire page on the Starting Point – Teaching Entry Level Geoscience site titled Survey Your Students with suggestions from instructors from a range of institutions. SERC also has a link to a collection of examples for first day of class activities that involve surveying your students. One example I will call attention to is from Megan Jones (North Hennepin Community College) who gives her students an Inclusivity Survey.

photo of book cover, What Inclusive Instructors DoI recently posted about the book What Inclusive Instructors Do – Principles and Practices for Excellence in College Teaching, and how the book includes a Who’s in Class? form [see blog post for full description of the book]. This form, intended to use very early in the semester, can assist instructors in making their courses inclusive and equitable by learning the invisible identities and perspectives students are bringing to class. My university used this book as part of a pedagogical summer reading group, and we recently had a discussion about the Who’s in Class? survey – the questions on it, and the use of the form. Here, I share some notes from that discussion, which are helpful for all instructors to reflect upon if they decide to use the Who’s in Class? form or any other survey.

Some points raised during our discussion included:

  • There was strong consensus for students to take any first day of class survey voluntarily and anonymously. Still, if you are teaching a small class versus a large class, will students be concerned that an instructor will be able to figure out which responses tie back to a specific student (will questions about race/gender reveal who a respondent is)?
  • Do students take the survey in class/during the first day of class, ideally yielding a better response rate? What impact will that have if the instructor is standing in the same room? Will the responses be full, open and honest, or will students feel uncomfortable and intimidated with the instructor present?
  • Do students need to see the syllabus first before completing the survey?
  • How can Microsoft Forms, Google Forms, and/or Qualtrics be used to keep student responses as aggregate – or can we really hide the individual submissions from faculty?

We briefly discussed the questions you may want to include (or not) on a first day survey:

  • Forms such as Who’s in Class? ask students if they are a Pell Grant eligible or receiving financial aid. What perception will a student have of the instructor if a student is meeting a new instructor for the first time and the survey is asking personal information, such as financial status?
  • Ask students what days/times work best for them to hold office hours.
  • If the class is an online course, ask students what time zone they are logging in from to complete the coursework.
  • In upper-division courses, ask how many students are transfer students, thereby spending their first semester at your campus as a third-year student.
  • Some faculty are interested in student hobbies/interests and tying those back into course content, but perhaps wait to ask about these items at another time on a separate survey.

The next step to consider is now that an instructor has all of this survey data – what will they do with it? For example, in my blog post about Pronouns in the classroom… to ask, or not to ask, and how to ask, a student may enter their pronouns but not want the instructor to use their pronouns publicly. If an instructor learns what percentage of their students receive financial aid, or how many have at least one parent that attended college, how will an instructor act on this knowledge? One suggestion in our discussion group was to find another colleague to share the survey results with and have a discussion around possible course modifications. For example, if an instructor learns that the majority of their students are non-residential and commute to campus by public transit, the instructor may want to think of adding a Zoom option to an evening guest lecture on campus so those students don’t have to spend extra time and fees commuting.

In the end, our faculty discussion group agreed that survey responses can yield stepping stones to conversations and modifications with regards to our students and our courses. As instructors, we need to be mindful and thoughtful about the questions we ask, how we ask these questions, and what (if anything) we will do with those responses. Although we all want to have welcoming, inclusive and equitable classrooms, sometimes asking too many questions that yield information we won’t act upon may have the opposite effect.

The Who’s in Class? form is available to download as a supplement at the end of the open access article, A Tool to Advance Inclusive Teaching Efforts: The “Who’s in Class?” Form.