Survey your Students

Initial Publication Date: April 10, 2008

What and how you teach may well depend on who your students are. Their prior knowledge (and misconceptions), their attitudes and beliefs toward the subject matter, their preferred learning styles, and what they are interested in learning about may all inform your teaching in valuable ways. What better time to find out about your students than the first day of class? One excellent way to learn about your students is to survey them.

You can survey your students' ...

Prior knowledge, individually or collectively

  • Daniel Brownstein has his students at Hastings High School describe what they see in photos of geologic features:
    "I break the students into groups of 3-4 and give each group two 8x10 laminated color photos of landscapes showing a variety of geologic features. For example, one of the photos may clearly show horizontal bedding in buttes and mesas in Monument Valley, while the other might show a series of volcanic plugs in the same region. Students are asked first to draw the features and then tell the geologic story of their formation using whatever terminology they remember from Earth Science (a course they took in 8th or 9th grade). I ask them to label and identify as many geologic features as they can in the picture as well. Using a large-screen computer projector, I project the images on a screen and each group presents what they have come up with." (Read more.)
  • Cari Johnson has her students at the University of Utah do a gallery walk that asks about their prior knowledge and what they are looking forward to learning:
    "I have my students do a Gallery Walk. Questions are aimed at gauging student preconceptions about [and interests within] geology. [....] Inevitably, plate tectonics and volcanoes are a yes, but mineral ID is a no. This gives me the chance to suggest that perhaps learning about a mineral in the context of plate tectonics would be more interesting than just memorizing its name." (Read more.)
  • Don Minkel has his students at Adirondack Community College take a 5-question quiz designed to unearth misconceptions:
    "As a whole-class activity we take the "A Private Universe" quiz, a five-question quiz on fundamental concepts in astronomy. As we take the quiz we compare the class results to the results of surveyed teachers. The students do not do significantly worse but neither group does very well. We then watch the associated 20 minute video that shows how clinging to preconceptions often blocks learning, even in good students. Class discussion is interspersed throughout." (Read more.)


  • Prajukti Bhattacharyya engages her students at the University of Wisconsin - Whitewater in a forthright discussion of their attitudes toward science and addresses their concerns:
    "I ask my students how many of them hate science and/or math. I usually get a significant show of hands. I then ask them to specify why they have such negative feelings about science in general. Sometimes a few students come up with reasons like they cannot understand abstract concepts. Whenever someone brings up a point like that, I address it directly and concisely: how we will use concrete examples and hands-on samples in earth science, or how we will talk about concrete observations and hypotheses based on those observations...." (Read more.)
  • Gary Smith at the University of New Mexico asks his students on the first day of class,
    "Thinking about what you want to get out of your college education and this course, which of the following is most important to you?
    1. "Acquiring information (facts, principles, concepts)
    2. "Learning how to use information and knowledge in new situations
    3. "Developing lifelong learning skills"
    -- from First Day Questions for the Learner-Centered Classroom (Acrobat (PDF) 140kB Jun26 09), published in the National Teaching and Learning Forum, v. 17, n. 5, September 2008.

Learning styles

  • David Mogk has his students at Montana State University complete the VARK learning styles survey:
    "I distribute the VARK survey, which helps students (and me) assess their preferred learning styles: visual, aural, reading/writing, kinesthetic. The VARK instrument also provides suggestions of study strategies and test-taking strategies for folks that are characterized as preferring one of the 4 learning dimensions. This also helps me in my own course design to try to accommodate the learning style preferences of the students." (Read more.)

Interests in course topics

  • John Wagner has his students at Clemson University write down one or two topics they would like to learn more about and uses it to construct the course outline:
    "Following the viewing of the video 'Geology: Why Bother,' I hand out index cards and ask each student to write down [some information, including] one or two things about earth resources that they would like to see covered during the semester. I group these items into common themes and incorporate the topics into a day-by-day course outline which I then hand out the second day of class. In this way, I hope to create a sense of ownership in the course on the part of the students - in that we would be emphasizing topics that they had selected." (Read more.)

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