It’s the beginning of the spring 2012 semester and for some faculty this means we’re teaching an entirely new class of students.  Before the course begins, I survey my students to learn more about what they know about the course topics. This helps me be an effective teacher and customize the course based on their unique set of competencies.

Preview of a survey for my social media course

Also, this helps me plan my course and adjust topics as necessary.  The added bonus is that it’s a way to begin to make contact with your students before the class begins. 

Here are the basic steps:


Questions. It’s important to ask questions that really give you concrete information about the knowledge and skills of your students. Without that it will be difficult to use the data to inform your teaching.

Format. Web-based forms are the best for this. Try to keep most of the response types to multiple choice or a selection of choices rather than open-ended. You may find it more difficult to interpret open-ended responses especially if your class size is > 30.

Length. Try to keep the survey to 10 to 15 questions. More than that and it’s just not fun (for you or the students). Ensure that every question you ask is critical to your basic understanding of their knowledge of the course content. Also, a long survey will probably decrease your response rate. Typically, you’ll see the highest response rate to your survey within one day of distribution.


There are lots of tools out there. My favorites are GoogleForms, SurveyMonkey, and Qualtrics. GoogleForms is the most “lightweight” solution for a quick student survey.

Here’s a preview of one of my surveys for my social media class called “Electronic Communities”. Feel free to complete it. It was designed in GoogleForms.


This is the easy part. Write a friendly email to your students asking for their voluntary participation in your survey. Emphasize that their individual responses will be anonymous, but the aggregate results will be shared with the class.   


This may seem obvious, but it’s much easier to collect data than it is to interpret results. Identify trends, patterns, or anomalies.

There are many ways you can use the results. You should consider how you’ll use the results before even beginning this exercise.   The results typically will be automatically aggregated for you in GoogleForms, Qualtrics, or SurveyMonkey.

Results of a GoogleForm survey automatically aggregated and displayed in a bar chart

1) Incorporate the results into your first class. Share the results back with the students. When you see outliers in the data or skewed results this is a prime opportunity to engage in a discussion with the class. Ask for volunteers to discuss how they responded to question x and why.

2) Adjust your syllabus. If you notice many students have a handle on some of the topics you may want to consider finding ways to engage those more advanced in a specific topic area.  If students seem less the knowledgeable about a particular topic ensure that you allocate extra time in your course for review and practice, if applicable.

3) Inform how you group students. If your teaching a project or skills-based course, knowing the prior knowledge/skills of students can inform how you’ll structures groups. If you learn that there’s a mix of students with skill Y, then you’ll probably want to have those student work in different groups.

4) To reflect on the class progress.  Consider resurveying your students around the midterm and/or at the end of the course. Then, the students and you can reflect on the progress of the class as a whole.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someonePrint this page