The Pre-Class Survey
One of the communication methods I use to connect with a new class before term even starts is the the pre-class survey. I use a localised version of Moodle, which has a nice survey tool built in (although they call it Feedback). I have heard from other Professors who use Google Docs or other survey tools to do a similar thing. I use the survey in an anonymous mode, and tell the students that.
My survey normally has no more than four of five questions in it. The first few are normally multiple choice, and are mostly about the level of mathematics and physics preparation in the class. The real heart of the survey is the last question, which has to be an open-ended, long text answer question.
I have found that the answers to this question can be used to build a FAQ section on the course website. I have over 200 students in the course, and so many of the responses ask the same question. I post my responses to the questions every couple of days on the course website. This means that other students can browse the answers, and start to understand what it means to take the course, and hopefully something about my teaching philosophy and methods. Many students are very nervous about taking Physics, and this is one of my calming and reassurance techniques.
Bear in mind that the majority of students responding to the survey are first years. They have never been in a higher education classroom, and quite understandably are nervous about the transition from high school.
There are a lot of questions about note-taking and study techniques. Also questions about the level of difficulty of the course.
And then occasionally, there are some more surprising questions!
Don’t hesitate to answer these (within reason), it shows that you are a real person, not just an intimidating Professor.
By putting these responses into a FAQ, you can answer the same question to many students, and the students can see that they are not alone, that others in the class are probably concerned about the same things that they are. It also means that by the time you get into that crucial first class, you have already established a relationship with the students. It does take some time and effort to carry out this exercise, but I have found it very worthwhile, especially in first year classes, where most the of the students don’t know what to expect, and get considerable benefit from mentoring before the term starts.
The survey for the Fall class has just been posted online. I wonder what will turn up this year?