Scott Winter, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
How starting large-group classes with comprehensive Google Forms surveys can transform the classroom dynamic, personalize assignments for students and increase active participation and engagement.
A sortable spreadsheet of biographical info about all students in a large-group class – in this case, a 120-student JOUR101 Principles of Mass Media class, essentially the course that introduces students to the college and industry – can be used to help instructors better understand their classroom audience, its current skill set, and to provide a more meaningful experience for students and teachers alike. Used effectively, this tool tip can make teachers more efficient and the use of technology can lead to a more personal and engaged pedagogical experience. Application of this tool has also allowed the professor to turn a large-group class into a more hands-on experience though project work and create more one-on-one time with each student.
• Build a survey in Google Forms (or other preferred platform). With the upcoming syllabus in mind, instructors build a survey that provides data related to the course and its major assignments. Ask them simple baseline information (age, year in college, major, hometown, etc.) that helps the instructor understand the audience. Ask them personal information (new sources, favorite entertainment, dream job, etc.) that helps bring course content to life through relatable examples in class. Ask them class content-related and assignment-related questions (experience in or with mass media, confidence in writing, history of video editing, access to production equipment, etc.) that would inform the instructor about the depth and scope of assignments, and help build project groups with similar interests and complementary skill sets.
• Send out the survey. Make the survey the first grade in the course – a certain number of points given for completing it, explaining to them that honesty is most critical because their answers will affect their success on subsequent course content and projects.
• Analyze results. Have your IT people help you, if necessary, manipulate how the results look to apply them to content choices (most students are interested in sports, so let’s use some sports examples in the ethics unit, etc.) and upcoming projects (see Meta-Interview Project below, etc.), and adjust that look as your purposes change through pivot tables and other Microsoft Excel functions. Examples can be provided by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are some examples of how I use this database in a large introductory class, but could work in almost any class.
• Hopes and Dreams meetings. In the first three weeks of the semester, students sign up for 15-minute one-on-one meetings with the professor via Blackboard. With a low grading load in those early weeks, I’m able to meet with all 120 students to ask them where they come from, what they’ve done, what they’re good at doing and where they dream of going. Before they show up, I scan their bio answers, to show I’ve done my homework, which is their homework. After the meetings, I add a few notes to the database to help me remember them. The result: Students know I care about their individual needs. They’ve met me, and I’ve told them how to use this class to get closer to their professional dreams. For example, a public relations student may want to look at ethics through a crisis communications lens, or choose to write a feature story assignment about a public relations professional, which would connect them to a potential mentor. With this conversation, I have buy-in.
• Groupings. For efficiency’s sake, I use the bio forms to build groups for major assignments (creating niche magazines, documentary videos, adv-PR mini-campaigns, etc.). This way, I am creating groups in eHarmony.com fashion – matching complementary skill sets, identical or opposite majors, similar hopes and dreams – to be sure they work well together or to tailor the assignment to their needs. An example of how this works is included in the next bullet. The result: We haven’t crunched the numbers yet on class evaluations, but anecdotally we’ve found less complaining about group work and higher quality student work.
• Meta-interview Project. A specific example of how we apply the spreadsheet to a specific assignment comes mid-semester, when student groups of four replicate David Lynch’s 2009 Online News Association-winning Interview Project. I ask our IT folks to create a new sheet on the Google Form spreadsheet that prioritizes their spreadsheet answers to group them by (1) major, (2) dream job, (3) video experience, (4) writing ability, (5) leadership experience and (6) access to video editing software. They return 30 sophisticated groups of four students each, who collaborate to produce documentary style videos of media professionals who are doing the students’ dream jobs now. For example, four broadcasting majors did their video on a local Big Ten Network play-by-play announcer. One set up and executed the video, one did the videography, one wrote the script and the last edited the video. The result: Ultimately, they all had buy-in on the project because they cared about the content/subject, and performed beyond their experience as 101 students because the data-mining produced a group that would work well together based on each members’ experiences and skill sets. They executed tasks that they hadn’t even been taught. My teaching assistant and I apply this to at least three assignments a year. (Samples of final product: http://youtu.be/PhsTCy5BYZI or http://youtu.be/Qy-zlM0viAc.)
• Retention. At our university, we have a push for faculty to pay attention to student retention in our departments, with a vague suggestion to try to improve those numbers. My teaching assistant and I have found that we can quickly help poorly performing students by reviewing their biographical spreadsheets, approaching the problem in a more personal way. The Hopes and Dreams meetings also help with that by making students connect with the professor immediately. More importantly, maybe, they get connected to other students with similar dreams and similar/complementary skills, all despite the large number in the room.
I’m a journalism professor, not a programmer or a master of even Microsoft Excel, but I, along with most professors, can easily navigate this spreadsheet. Beyond the practical and efficiency-related byproducts, I also love having these records of my students in my computer (or on Google Drive) when I need to write recommendation letters or simply to be reminded who they are several semesters down the road. I’d would also recommend this spreadsheet for professors who run online/distance or blended courses, where getting to know students is even more difficult. Lastly, because the spreadsheets are so easy to use, my teaching assistants often can manage most of these tasks for me.
About the Author
Scott Winter, in his eighth year of teaching at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, spent 10 years as a high school journalism adviser/English teacher and six years as a journalist at North Dakota’s three largest daily newspapers. His students have won Hearst and Robert F. Kennedy Foundation awards. His research focuses on narrative storytelling in multiple contexts and on multiple platforms.