Setting the tone activities

Survey students early in the semester: Pre-Course Survey

Use a pre-course survey to get to know your students early on in the semester.
Survey students early in the semester: Pre-Course Survey
Educator prep: High
Student prep: None
Polling tool
Duration: 5-30 mins

Activity purpose

Get to know a little bit more about your students early on in the semester.

Useful for

Knowing students so you can better design your course to respond to student needs for the particular semester, rather than make general assumptions. You can use this to get to know demographic information, technology/infrastructure information, pre-knowledge of course topics, learning strategy preferences and any accommodations students may need.


Writing the survey.


Decide what you need to know about your students and how you might be able to modify things about your course or course structure or pedagogy to respond to these things. Examples of things you may want to know:

  1. Demographic information, including where they are located (e.g. if you have students on different timezones and you’re teaching online), their preferred pronouns; for graduate courses, it may help to know what kind of job experience they have, especially if you expect students to do some course work while applying it to their own context.
  2. Pre-knowledge about course topics, so that you can know whether to spend time revising material, or refer them to additional resources, or ask a Teaching Assistant to offer sessions. It can also save you time, if your students have a lot of background knowledge on something, you can choose to go faster and do more advanced activities. You can ask these questions in terms of familiarity with course concepts (e.g. “Very familiar, Somewhat familiar, Have heard of it, Have never heard of it”) or you can ask questions quiz-like (open ended or multiple choice).
  3. Technology infrastructure: this will help you decide whether you can use high-bandwidth pedagogies comfortably, and prevent you from assuming everyone has equal access to devices and connectivity. You can also ask about familiarity and comfort with tech tools you plan to use in your classes (e.g. Google docs, blogs, social media)
  4. Preferred learning strategies - if you have some flexibility in terms of how you will teach and what kind of assignments you will conduct, you can ask here. For example, you can ask students if they have a preferred tool for communication between classes (WhatsApp or Slack)
  5. Expectations, Goals & Feelings: You can also ask about their expectations of the course, their own goals, or how they respond to your own expectations and their feelings as the semester approaches (e.g. what are they most worried/excited about? Why did they take your course? How do they feel about cameras on/off?)
  6. Survey Quiz/Reaction: You can ask students some questions to check they understand what is on the syllabus, or you can get their feedback on what is on the syllabus. Though you could do this separately via an “annotate the syllabus” activity.
  7. How to say their name. If you would like, students can record the pronunciation of their name at Name Coach (free, and modifies the speaker’s voice but allows you to learn how to pronounce their names correctly), and post the link for you:


Depends on length of survey, but can be taken out of class time.

Adaptations and examples

This is probably not going to be an anonymous survey, but you can promise students confidentiality, that you will not share their personal information. You could do some of it as anonymous polling inside class, but not with very sensitive questions.

Technical requirements

Any survey tool will do, Google forms (completely free), SurveyMonkey (free version has limitations), etc., or you can run it inside your Learning Management System (Virtual Learning Environment) if you prefer. Most, like Blackboard and Canvas, have survey tools. If you are unfamiliar with surveying tools or are asking mainly open-ended questions, students can email you their responses or write them in Google docs. You can also ask your teaching and learning centre for help, as they probably have templates and experience creating surveys.

Useful resources

Northwestern guidance from Kristina Wilson: HOW (AND WHY!) TO WRITE A PRE-COURSE SURVEY OR QUESTIONNAIRE 

Yale Poorvu Center Pre-course surveys

Sample pre-course surveys:

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