In this section, Dr. Florian Hollerweger describes how he uses student surveys in 21M.380 Music and Technology: Sound Design to gain insight into students’ background knowledge and motivation for taking the course.
Selecting Students for the Course
Enrollment in 21M.380 Music and Technology: Sound Design is limited to 16 students, and we usually have about 40 people interested in taking the course each semester. To help me select students for the course, I ask them to complete a survey about their background knowledge (such as the programming languages they know) and their personal interests in sound design. Two questions, in particular, help me create a productive and engaging class group. The first question asks students to identify any pragmatic reasons why they should be in the class. This gives me an opportunity to identify fourth year students for whom this may be their last opportunity to take the course, or music majors, minors, and concentrators, who might need this course to fulfill a graduation requirement. I do my best to accommodate these students.
But I also want them to think about their personal interests and what motivates them to take this course beyond fulfilling academic requirements, so I also ask them to identify any 'non-pragmatic' reasons why they should be in the class. It’s when they complete this portion of the survey that they really have to think about why they want to engage with sound design. Their responses to this question help me determine whether a student has a developing interest that I need to foster, or whether a student really doesn’t know why they want to be in the class. The responses reliably reveal those students for whom the class is just a perfect fit.
Using Students’ Responses to Inform Teaching
Once the class is in full swing, I use students’ survey responses to help inform my teaching. If a student is struggling in the course, I’ll often go back to the survey to understand what it is about his or her background experiences that may be contributing to the student's struggle. Or, if there is a student who has submitted a final project idea that is quite ambitious, I’ll review the student’s survey responses to help me determine if he or she will be able to accomplish the work, or if the student will need additional support. Whenever I need to get a more complete picture of any individual student outside of class or office hours, I return to the surveys.
Advice for Other Educators
I have been administering this type of survey in all of my courses for as long as I have been teaching at MIT (3 years). I do this because, in all of my classes, I typically have between 12 and 20 students. When I teach three classes a semester, it can be challenging to get to know students individually. The survey allows me to consider my students' personal background and interests whenever I cannot rely on one-on-one interactions with them. Whether other educators should try a similar strategy depends on their circumstances. Certainly, in much smaller classes, it may not be necessary. But for educators teaching several medium-to-large-sized classes a semester, I do believe that surveys can help to gain insight into students’ motivation for taking the course and the practical background knowledge they bring to the work.