Student-Made Surveys: Suggestion for an Extended Project
Michael Guest is an Associate Professor of English in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Miyazaki, Japan and has also served as an adjunct Professor at Tokyo University and as a visiting Professor at Thammasat University, Thailand. Guest is the author of Conferencing and Presentation English for Young Academics (Springer). His interests include professional discourses and academic speech. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The ability to create, carry out, and report upon a survey project offers many opportunities for English language learners to utilize a variety of language skills for productive purposes. Creating a questionnaire in teams, conducting a classroom survey by speaking, and then interpreting the results as a report, requires cognitive as well as linguistic skills. Furthermore, being production and outcome focused, a survey project can serve as a meaningful and engaging task in which students can apply their English skills in a creative, autonomous manner, and is one which can also be applied professionally in the future. This instructional article outlines how such an extended survey project can be conducted based upon the author’s long experience in teaching these skills to medical and nursing students. Key linguistic and procedural features are listed while optional elements and hints/warnings regarding potential benefits and pitfalls are also discussed.
I have been conducting classes on constructing and carrying out English surveys for over ten years to my Japanese medical and nursing students. Over time, it has become apparent that not only do students enjoy the autonomy and self-directed learning that participating in such a project entails but also appreciate the fact that the project itself allows for a wide use of English skills which also further challenge and enhance learner cognition. In this article, I’d like to share how such a project can best be managed for the most positive learning outcomes.
Although parameters are flexible, the model I will use to describe the management of this project involves five to eight 90-minute classes, with 30 students per class, of low-intermediate or higher English proficiency. If teachers have fewer classes available to them, the amount of homework can be increased and the optional activities described below can be eliminated or combined. What follows is a class-by-class outline as to how such a survey project might best be managed.
Project outline, topics, and purpose: Class 1
The goal of the project, expressed to the students both in writing and verbally in the opening class, is for students to construct, conduct, and report on a survey. I start by establishing ten teams of three students each, although pair work is more feasible if the total number of students is less than 24.
It is important to impress upon the students early that every survey should have a clear and succinct purpose. What exactly is it that the researchers wish to find out? What exactly is the field or area that they intend to gain data about? Without establishing such strict parameters, it is possible, even likely, that students will focus more upon constructing a series of random questions that do not serve any unified purpose or will wander from the chosen topic. Therefore, after teams are selected, it is imperative that students give a great deal of thought to the survey topic and purpose.
I announce in the first class that topics will be self-selected by the team members. For my nursing and medical students, topics are limited to the field of health care (and should be similarly limited for those students who are specializing in a particular field). However, even for students in general English courses, topic parameters and/or suggestions can be established by the instructor.
For post high-school aged learners, I would strongly discourage topics that are wide in scope (e.g. exercise, eating habits, sleeping habits) in favour of topics with a more specific focus (e.g. stretching, energy drinks, napping). The narrower the topic, the more likely that students will be inclined to stay on that topic and thereby produce a unified survey that can invite meaningful interpretations and correlations.
Teams must inform the teacher of their chosen topics by the end of this first class. It is incumbent upon the instructor at this time to make sure that the same topics are not being covered by other teams and that any potential field overlap is rectified.
Pre-survey preparation: Class 2
It is essential that students use a variety of question types when constructing their surveys. Generally, I require that at least 12 questions to be constructed by each team and that at least seven common types of survey questions be used at least one time each. The seven varieties I teach are described below:
- Preliminary questions, which include fundamental data such as age, gender, school clubs, family, hometown or any item that the researchers wish to use to correlate with the other responses. Care should be taken that the choice of preliminary questions corresponds closely with the stated purpose of the survey.
- Rank questions, in which respondents are asked to rank items (5 or 6 being ideal)
- Rating/Scale questions, in which respondents are asked to rate a response from 1 to 5. The end coordinates on a rating scale (e.g., 1 = hate, 5 = love) should be explicit and clear.
- Binary questions (typically yes/no). It is essential that binary questions be followed up by a conditional question (If yes…/If no…).
- Open multiple choice questions, which typically include the instruction for the respondent to ‘check as many as you like’ and will generally also include the ‘all of the above’, ‘none of the above’, or ‘other ___________’ options.
- Multiple-choice questions, in which respondents are required to choose only one (typically the top or best) item from a list or series.
- Open-ended questions, which typically allow for some deeper expression and expansion on behalf of the respondent, including opinions. Although the question will be written in English, I allow the respondents to reply in Japanese.
In order to familiarize students with these various survey question forms, I introduce my own self-made foreign travel survey, which models all of the above question forms, for students to fill out.
Once topics and purposes have been established and question-types learned and/or practiced it is time for students to create their survey in their teams. This usually begins once the question types have been introduced (above) and thus can be managed in the final 30-45 minutes of this class time.
Typically, I ask that only the first 6 questions (including preliminary items) be constructed at this time, to be submitted by the end of class. This gives the instructor an opportunity to critique these initial questions and divert students from problems such as going off topic, irrelevance, repetition, triviality, confusing or infelicitous questions, and poorly constructed item choices before the next class.
Question correction and expansion: Class 3
Some typical survey-construction problems can be addressed by the instructor to each team at the beginning of this class. Among the common problems that have emerged at this point are:
- Students regularly straying from the extant topic, often moving into more general fields that do not further the purpose of their survey.
- Students constructing items simply because they are able to, rather than considering their relevance to, or cohesion with, the survey’s purpose.
- Students including options that almost no respondent might be expected to choose, items that overlap or cross categories, items that lack a sufficient number of meaningful choices, or overloading certain types of potential responses while ignoring other more pertinent options.
- Students creating a ranking question for an item that would be more meaningful if constructed as a scale/rating item, or vice-versa.
- Students overloading a series of questions into a single peripheral area of their topic.
- Students failing to include ‘other’, ‘none’ or ‘all of the above’ options where these would be helpful or even necessitated.
- Students constructing vague questions that could be interpreted in more than one way, constructed with poor syntax, or questions that are otherwise infelicitous (loaded questions, duplicitous questions, single questions that actually contain two lines of inquiry etc.).
One (optional) activity that I use to address these issues is a set of sample “problem questions” which I distribute to all students at the beginning of this class. Students are asked to identify what the problems are in each question and are then required to check to see if they have made similar errors in their surveys thus far or have been identified by the instructor after the initial 6 questions were submitted as homework and returned.
The survey: Class 4
Once the instructor is satisfied that all teams have constructed at least 12 pertinent questions, deemed to be on topic and purpose-oriented, the actual survey class can begin.
One key point of this class is that the surveys be conducted in spoken English. In other words, students will survey the members of other teams one-by-one (and they themselves will also be surveyed) not by simply handing out a survey sheet but by actively speaking. In order to make this successful, the following procedures should be maintained:
- Each member of the team must have a copy of their survey, with sufficient room to write or mark responses.
- Members should keep track of who they have surveyed. In order to do this, I divide my class of 30 into three sets of ten. Teams consist of students with the roster numbers 1-11-21, 2-12-22, and so on. Thus, when carrying out the survey, students will conduct their surveys within a bubble of 10 students, thereby making sure that no student has been included twice.
- Typically, students are able to complete 6 or 7 surveys over the 90-minute class. The remaining 2 or 3 non-surveyed students should be clearly identified and can complete the survey outside of class time (although in reality this is likely to occur as a reading activity).
Survey follow-up: Class 5
The students arrive for the next class with their completed survey forms. The initial goal of this class is to have students calculate the responses in their teams. This can take up to 45 minutes.
Once the responses have been calculated, the next activity is to have teams prepare for a survey report session. Among the items that should be explained in order for students to prepare for this are as follows:
- The report sessions will take place in the next class (in my case, I give each team 10 minutes to do their report).
- The reports are performed with only the three team members present per session.
- The reports are performed in English.
- Each member must speak.
- The reports should focus only upon the most interesting, significant, or surprising results. No more than 5 results should be discussed.
- The report should include a clear statement of survey topic, purpose, and a summary.
- The report should include some degree of interpretation (What do these results indicate?) and correlations (How are the results connected, particularly vis-à-vis the preliminary items?).
It is also important that students have some familiarity with the type of set phrases or expressions used to discuss survey results. Instructors can provide a list of such items, which can also be taught in the survey follow-up class. Among such items that I have included are:
- We noticed a correlation between A and B.
- We interpreted these results as meaning A.
- What we found most surprising/significant was A.
- The results appear to indicate A.
- The majority of respondents…
- The top choice among respondents was A.
- As we expected…
- Our main finding was A.
Students will also be expected to represent these results in terms of charts and graphs than can be used as visual aids during their reports. Most students will be familiar with pie charts, bars, and graphs and should be encouraged to use the type of visual representation that most clearly expresses the result that they wish to convey. In order to give students guidance in the use of these visual aids, I bring samples from previous surveys that students can freely peruse during this class.
Report: Class 6
As mentioned earlier, I have each team come separately for ten minutes in order to perform their report. I do not involve the whole class at once because of the boredom that is likely to occur if students have to sit through the reports of 9 or 10 other groups. Students are expected to be punctual and be prepared to immediately begin the report. I speak only to clarify any misunderstandings and primarily take commentary notes during the report, although I may ask a question if time permits.
Once each team has completed their report, they submit the visual aids (graphs, charts etc.) as well as a copy of their surveys to me. It is a combination of the survey and this spoken report that will constitute the bulk of their grades.
Report follow-up (optional) and grading: Class 7
In the class following the reports, a helpful follow up activity is to have teams perform their reports again, but this time with one other team as their audience, rotating 3 or 4 times within the class. During this class, I also provide quick verbal feedback to each team regarding the strengths and/or weaknesses of their survey project, focusing mainly upon the construction of the surveys and the quality of the report. I may also distribute further written comments and grades in this class.
I use the following rubric to evaluate the project:
- The quality of the survey questionnaire. Among the considerations here are: Did the students stay true to their topic? Did they establish a clear and meaningful purpose/goal? Were the questions interesting and relevant? Were the questions and possible responses felicitous and well-constructed? Did they employ a suitable variety of questions? A team score is given for this.
- The quality of the spoken report. Were they able to express meaningful outcomes clearly? Did they use appropriate survey language to discuss their results? Did they try to interpret results or correlate items? Did the report serve to enlighten or capture one’s interest? Here, members are scored individually.
- Effort and attendance. If one member of a team clearly serves as a catalyst for a successful survey, this student would receive a better evaluation. Conversely, if one member clearly contributed less to the team effort their score would be duly reduced.
Survey projects are a productive and beneficial means of enhancing students’ English skills, particularly those within English for Special Purposes (ESP) domains. It requires cognitive challenges, in terms of creating a cohesive and purpose-oriented questionnaire, and the ability to understand and express correlations and interpretations of data. It reinforces written skills in the construction of a variety of question types, and speech in the suitability of language choices when conducting the survey and reporting the outcomes. It activates speaking and listening skills both in the actual survey and in the subsequent report. It serves to stimulate student interest in particular topics that are meaningful to them and gives them the autonomy to explore this topic more deeply.
Over the many years that I have incorporated a survey project into my courses, my students have always been engaged, productive, and attain a sense of achievement in having successfully completed this project. I highly recommend that ESP teachers in particular carry out a similar project in their classrooms.
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Student-Made Surveys: Suggestion for an Extended Project
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