Using Surveys to Foster Individual Responsibility for Learning

W&M Seal with Radio Buttons

My academic background is in adult education. One of the activities that most adult educators engage in before planning a program is called “needs assessment,” where the planner makes the effort to really understand the backgrounds and experiences of potential learners and to figure out the ways that the course might respond directly to those learners. (In adult education, we generally talk about program planning rather than curriculum or course development; those terms are more commonly used for credit-bearing programs.) New survey tools make it much easier for teachers to gather background information about their students and to incorporate the results into course planning.

I generally administer a survey with 20 questions or so a couple of weeks before the first class meeting. Most of these are general information questions: Mac or PC; how much experience using features in Blackboard; what other courses have you taken, etc. I’ll generally ask some specific information about the course – such as the degree of familiarity with specific authors or concepts. The information that the students return is invaluable; in one class, none of the students had read Carl Rogers or were familiar with the humanist tradition in education. That fact alone triggered significant changes in the syllabus; in the 20 years I’ve been teaching the course Rogers and Maslow have fallen out of favor and don’t get much coverage in educational psychology courses these days. The survey spurred me to add a session on humanistic education that I previously would have figured would have been background knowledge for most participants.

The pretest in another class uncovered the fact that twelve out of the fourteen students in our first research methods class had already had at least one previous three credit course on the topic, and many had had two. If we hadn’t collected the data up front, we would have wasted a fair amount of class time covering material that almost everyone already knew fairly well.

Most of the time, I keep the first survey anonymous, though I’ll often follow-up with another survey about specific goals for the course where I do ask for names. Filling out that second form starts students along the path of taking additional responsibility for their own learning. I generally spend part of our first meeting going over the results of the surveys and help students understand how their learning experience compares with others in the class. This exercise helps students begin to take responsibility for their learning by figuring out ways they can build on their personal strengths and focus on the things they most need to learn. For example, a participant may have to study differently if they are one of two students in the class who never had a research methods class or if they were the one student in this course who had nine hours of methods classes and a job as a research analyst in the federal government.

Survey Tools

The technology allows to collect this information more quickly than we were able to in the past. Blackboard automatically links to students registered in the course and allows us to send group emails with links to surveys. I’ve found students to be fairly responsive to my requests that they fill out a survey before the first meeting, though add-drop can skew the results a bit during the first week of school.

William & Mary offers three types of survey tools to members of the community who want to use the web to collect information. Tribe Responses is a state-of-the-art system that was written specifically to work within the William & Mary environment. It works seamlessly with our authentication system, integrates with Tribe Voices personal web space and is extremely user friendly. Other faculty have used the anonymous survey tool in Blackboard.

I generally will use Qualtrics, a more powerful tool that every faculty member has access to through our site license. Qualtrics is one of the leading academic research tools in the country, and offers state-of-the art survey construction. It allows a full range of tools, including skip logic, randomization, experimental design, and a variety of output formats. In addition to the internal report engine, Qualtrics offers one click download into SPSS.

You can learn more about Qualtrics and Blackboard at on William & Mary’s Information Technology site.

About Gene Roche

Gene Roche is director of Academic Information Services with responsibility for assisting faculty in using technology effectively in their teaching, learning and research. He also has an academic appointment as Executive Professor in the School of Education where he teaches courses in educational technology planning, emerging technology, and adult education and works with with students on independent study, dissertations and comprehensive exams. Current projects include working with the SOE’s Executive EdD program, co-chairing William and Mary’s Survey Center, and serving as chair of the Electronic Campus of Virginia. Gene completed his AB degree at Hamilton College and his MS and EdD degrees at Syracuse University–all in the snow belt of upstate New York. Before coming to William and Mary, he was the Director of Career Services at Hamilton and taught in graduate programs in Adult Education at Syracuse University and Elmira College.