Pre-lecture surveys: Activating students before class

By Yf Reykers

Kahoot, Mentimeter, Wooclap, Gosoapbox. Does this sound familiar?

These digital platforms are nowadays part of our standard teaching toolbox, perhaps even more so after a year of online teaching. But no matter how interactive, much of students’ learning experience still depends on how prepared they come to class. While we can expect students in a problem-based learning (PBL) environment to prepare well for tutorials, this expectation tends to be much less outspoken for lectures.

The position of lectures in an active learning context has been – and still is – up for debate. In a text-book PBL setting, we would schedule lectures only after students have delved into a topic. In practice, lectures often take place before tutorials. This should not necessarily be problematic, as has been discussed here before. We just need to find ways to activate our audience.

Interestingly, most online tips and tricks about the design of active learning lectures focus predominantly on in-class activities. The digital tools mentioned above are also geared towards fostering interaction during lectures. They won’t guarantee that your students come prepared. How can we make sure that students also actively reflect upon a particular lecture topic before entering the (digital) lecture room? Well, maybe you want to consider using pre-lecture surveys.

How you can use pre-lecture surveys

I have used pre-lecture surveys throughout the past academic year for a range of different topics, including an introductory lecture into research methods, an opening lecture of an international relations course and two more applied lectures on humanitarian interventions and EU crisis management operations.

I decided to use Qualtrics, which Maastricht University is subscribed to. It is straightforward, allows you to integrate a wide variety of question types and – importantly – has a user-friendly interface, also for mobile devices.

Before developing the survey, think of your main intention. Do you want to trigger interest? Or do you rather want to stimulate active engagement with a topic? Including an introductory statement which indicates your intentions is advisable. For instance, highlight that the survey does not intend to test students’ knowledge (it is not an exam!) but rather aims to measure their views. Adding that their answers will be used to adapt lecture content may also give them a sense of ownership.

In developing the surveys, I have used a variety of question types, ranging from open questions sensing their world views (e.g. “In your view, who is the most powerful actor in contemporary international politics?”), to rank-order questions about, for instance, students’ sentiments about policy success. But you can also move beyond these general questions. In a pre-lecture survey about EU crisis management operations, which you can consult here, I presented a fictitious case inviting students to contemplate an adequate EU response. This case was then used as the capstone example around which the actual lecture was built.

Once you have developed your survey, the challenge is to ensure participation. Keep the survey short (max. 5 minutes) and send it out well ahead of the lecture. Ask students (repeatedly) to respond by a deadline that gives you sufficient time to adapt lecture content where needed and to include the results. Yet, be aware that ultimately, the success of your survey depends on students checking their emails or Canvas.

Why you should use pre-lecture surveys

Pre-lecture surveys require a level of flexibility from the lecturer’s side, as you need to be ready to adapt lecture content on short notice. Nonetheless, I see two key reasons why you should consider using pre-lecture surveys. The first reason is that lectures ideally build on pre-existing knowledge. But how do you know where to put your baseline? This is particularly challenging when developing a guest lecture or an opening lecture. A pre-lecture survey allows you to get a sense of your classroom’s general knowledge. Responses can give you a sound indication of where to put your priorities and ensure that your lecture ties in with what your students know.

The second reason is that, as a lecturer, we are often unaware of the dominant ideas and sentiments in a particular student group on the lecture topic. You might have experienced it yourself: the awkward silence after asking a question that you expected to spark debate. Pre-lecture surveys allow you to anticipate on this. Moreover, it offers a tool to explore dominant opinions about contentious issues and adapt the lecture in such a way that it challenges them. I noticed that this works particularly well for topics about which you can expect outspoken opinions, but not necessarily in-depth knowledge.

In sum, while we have mastered the skill of fostering interaction during lectures, we should not forget that students also need to be activated to show up and prepare. Pre-lecture surveys can help you to achieve that goal.

About the author

Yf Reykers is Assistant Professor in International Relations at FASoS. He teaches in the Bachelor, Master and Research Master European Studies. When he is not teaching, Yf studies the international and domestic politics of military operations, with a particular interest in questions of accountability.