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The Power of the Pre-Course Survey for Course Launch, Addressing Concerns, and Developing Community

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2022 ASEE Gulf Southwest Annual Conference


Prairie View, Texas

Publication Date

March 16, 2022

Start Date

March 16, 2022

End Date

March 18, 2022

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Shawna Thomas Texas A&M University Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Thomas is an Instructional Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University. She is a member of the Engineering Education Faculty in the Institute for Engineering Education & Innovation at Texas A&M. She enjoys project-based learning and incorporating active learning techniques in all her courses. She received her Ph.D. from Texas A&M University in 2010, focusing on developing robotic motion planning algorithms and applying them to computational biology problems including protein folding. She continued this work as a Postdoctoral Research Associate and then as an Assistant Research Scientist until transitioning to teaching. She has also worked as an algorithmic consultant in digital oral care, leveraging her research experience in modeling motion.

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Randy Hugh Brooks Texas A&M University Orcid 16x16

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After 23 years in Telecom building LD, internet, and email platforms and networks, I observed that the front line personnel that I was hiring didn’t have what I considered to be skills that they should be bringing to the table. I began investigating why, and that led me to high school.

Alas, I began my journey in Education in 2010 inhabiting the classrooms of Lovejoy High School, where my two daughters attended.

I redubbed my PreCalculus course as Problem-Solving with Brooks and was also afforded the opportunity to lead an impactul Project Lead the Way (PLTW) Principles of Engineering (PoE) course, a project-based learning survey of the engineering discipline.

Since the Summer of 2015 I have been privileged to work with the Texas A and M Sketch Recognition Lab (TAMU SRL) to evaluate a couple of online tutorial tools (Intelligent Tutoring Systems (ITS)) currently under development, Mechanix and Sketchtivity, that provide immediate constructive feedback to the students and student-level metrics to the instructors. I presented on this work at the state and national PLTW Conventions and at CPTTE in 2016.

I also spent 5 semesters beginning the Fall of 2015 taking online courses learning how to construct and deliver online courses. This resulted in a MSEd from Purdue University in Learning Design and Technology (LDT).

This widely varied background prepared me well for my next big adventure. Beginning in August 2018 I became the Texas A and M Professor of Practice for the Texas A and M Engineering Academy at Blinn College in Brenham. Texas A and M Engineering Academies are an innovative approach to providing the planet with more Aggie Engineers.

I am focused on enhancing the high school through first-year college experience and am an engaged member of the Texas A and M IEEI (Institute for Engineering Education and Innovation).

My foundations were set by an upbringing on the family ranch near Joshua, Texas and 4 memorable years at Texas A and M where I met my wife, I led Bugle Rank #7 in the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band (Class of ’86 Whoop!), and dove into Telecom Engineering. Once in Telecom, my learning continued at MCI, Vartec, and Charter.

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Robert Harold Lightfoot Jr Texas A&M University

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Robert Lightfoot is an Associate Professor of Practice in Computer Science and a member of the Engineering Education faculty. He received his master’s degree in software engineering from Southern Methodist University and his bachelor’s degree in computer science from Texas A&M. Before joining Texas A&M, he worked at Ericsson (now Sony-Ericsson) in the network development and Digital Switch Corporation, and Motorola in cellular infrastructure development, project management, and technical marketing. He currently develops and teaches undergraduate Computer Science classes.

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Before the first day of class, both students and faculty experience uncertainty and anxiety about the journey that lays ahead. Faculty have certain expectations about what students know coming into the course, the students’ academic and life experiences, and even the students’ study habits. Students likewise have expectations about what support the faculty will provide, concerns about the challenges in the course based on their own previous experiences or intel from other students, and the students’ ability to manage their course/life load.

A simple pre-course or first-day survey is a powerful tool to expose student backgrounds, training, and concerns to the faculty. Faculty in turn can swiftly and accordingly tailor the beginning weeks of the course and supplementary material, identify social and emotional states, reduce student anxiety, and begin to develop a rapport with their students as they support an inclusive classroom community.

In this paper we share best practices for facilitating pre-course and first-day surveys which can be applied to any discipline and at all academic levels. We discuss specific ways to leverage the information gathered in these surveys for course launch, providing one-on-one care even in large classes, and fostering community.

For example, a common question is to ask if the student has any concerns or issues that the faculty should be aware of. Themes often emerge that the faculty can address to the entire class, supporting even those students who did not directly vocalize the concern. In addition, faculty can send a personalized email to students with concerns about specific ways to alleviate them. Student response to this approach is overwhelmingly positive, especially in large classes where students typically feel unseen and unheard. This sets a tone of caring as, historically, faculty do not often ask their students about their general concerns or issues.

Another way to use these surveys is to identify gaps in student knowledge that need to be addressed. The faculty can then add targeted supplemental activities and make adjustments to other supports addressing the specific needs of the students in a given semester. Faculty may also include leading questions to spur student development and target thinking. Finally, faculty can create student working groups that more evenly distribute background knowledge and skill sets. This fosters a collaborative environment where students are encouraged to lean on each other as they build their knowledge and skills.

We present observations from deploying these surveys in several different courses including a first-year engineering course, a junior-level project-based computer science and engineering course, and a senior capstone design course. Impact demonstration will be in the form of specific applications where the authors used survey results to best design teams, build connections within and across the student community, and to determine the level of scaffolding needed to address survey-identified student knowledge and skill set challenges.

Thomas, S., & Brooks, R. H., & Lightfoot, R. H. (2022, March), The Power of the Pre-Course Survey for Course Launch, Addressing Concerns, and Developing Community Paper presented at 2022 ASEE Gulf Southwest Annual Conference, Prairie View, Texas.

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