Start-of-course knowledge survey

Inspired by Linda Nilson’s excellent book Specifications Grading, I’m implementing several new ideas in my Fall term course. One of those is an ungraded start-of-course knowledge survey. In many ways, this assignment is a metacognitive task that helps instills thinking about the course in the students’ minds at the beginning of the course. I’m cautioning students not to be intimidated by the questions and by their obvious lack of knowledge. (I want to make sure no one drops the course just because of this little survey.) At the end of term, students will take the same knowledge survey. I hope that they will surprise themselves with how much they understand in 11 weeks.

The knowledge survey is constructed on a rating scale. It’s simply a diagnostic tool. It will give me, as the instructor, feedback as to where the students are at the beginning of the course. I do have access to viewing the other courses that they’ve taken in college, so I already have a sense of where they’re at. This is for a beginning programming course for nonprogrammers. Practically everybody is at that point. I suspect many are highly intimidated by Computer Science.

I’ll highlight a few of the key points regarding self-assessment on course knowledge and skills, as indicated in Nilson’s book:

  • reveals student misconceptions about the course
  • provides students with a preview of what they will learn
  • the end of term assessment helps make students aware of what they have learned in the course
  • surveys do not have to be rating scaled but could be open ended questions
  • questions could be factual based or tap into more complexity.

For my purposes, I want the survey to be as brief and simple as possible while also providing value. I’m generally not a fan of rating scale evaluations. But I really want this start-of-term assignment to be a very low-stakes, non-time consuming task. I’m presenting the students with 25 learning targets, which I will explain in another post . These learning targets are clearly presented to students at the beginning of the term. This initial assignment surveys their knowledge and comfort level with those learning targets by selecting a range of repsonses:

  • I have no idea: never heard of this before
  • I’m not sure what this could be about, but feel that I could figure it out in less than 10 minutes
  • I’m fairly confident that I know what this means
  • Yeah, I’m very confident that I know how to do this!

Essentially, students are rating their confidence level regarding each learning target. I’m fully expecting a lot of “no idea” responses and that’s okay.

But students often think that they know more than they do. Or, the type of high achieving students at my college might be reluctant to reveal what they do not know. Maybe I should let the students submit the survey anonymously? At this point, I want to get a sense of the overall class. Soon enough I’ll gain a perspective into each student’s confidence levels through their actual assignments.

The major benefit for students comes at the end of the course when they fill out the same knowledge survey they took at the beginning … Their awareness enhances their confidence and self-efficacy as learners, which in turns fosters their self-regulation.

Linda Nilson, Specifications Grading

After all, my main outcome for this course is for students to get over their intimidation of computational thinking. Raising their confidence to learn programming is what I’m after.