Quick, painless survey
Often when I start teaching a new group of students I like to get a sense of the skill/knowledge range in the room. Because I teach at a community college it's not uncommon to have students who are completely new to the subject area sitting next to people who may have worked professionally in that field. For example, in Web Publishing I there have been art directors with years of experience, students who've done extensive programming in related areas, and students who haven't done much with a computer beyond buying and selling on eBay (if that).
It can be painful for any of us to admit our shortcomings in front of a group, so asking for a show of hands ("How many of you don't know anything about the Web?") isn't a great idea.
An anonymous survey—on paper or on the web—works fine, but it takes time to tabulate the results. To share them with the class, which I like to do, adds another step. But there's an easier way...
I've found that drawing a scale on a whiteboard in the front of the room—with two clearly labeled extremes on it—and asking people to mark where they consider themselves works well. It's relatively anonymous, since once the marks are on the board it's hard to remember who did what. It's very quick, and it's bit of an ice-breaker since people have to physically get up, get the marker and hand it on to another, etc.
I try to make it even less threatening by giving the endpoints tongue-in-cheek names like "nada" and "zilch." In this case you can see that my Web Publishing I class this semester is pretty knowledgeable about Design, but mostly new to the Web.
The information may not be exact or statistically reliable, but this sort of quick snapshot is helpful in planning how to approach the topic.
If you have other ways of finding out more about your students in an simple, non-threatening way, I'd love to hear them. Please click "Add your omment" below and talk about them.