Questions from the Edge: Using Informal Surveys to Build Rapport with Students

Article excerpt

Byline: Eric Hedin

Our astronomy textbook, Astronomy: The Solar System and Beyond (Seeds 2003), includes an introductory note to students in which the author opens with these intriguing statements: "Astronomy helps us answer the ultimate question of human existence," and "Astronomy helps us understand the meaning of our own existence." These thoughts caught my attention. What did students think concerning the meaning of their existence? I was curious, and decided to ask them. The results of surveying students on this and two other questions have supplied information that is not only interesting in its own right for insights into student interests, but has also provided opportunities to foster rapport with students through discussions related to their responses.

Probing student interests

Over the last two years, from fall 2003 to fall 2005, I have collected and summarized student responses from eight sections of Astronomy 100 (approximately 750 students total). Almost all students enrolled are nonscience majors, taking the course to satisfy part of a core-curriculum requirement. Each semester, after collecting their responses, which varied in length from one sentence to a half a page, I would spend an enjoyable couple of hours reading and summarizing their responses.

I believe that the survey data give a unique view into what students really have on their minds, which can help us as educators to build bridges for more effective communication. The challenge of teaching science to nonscience majors is to engage students with a field of study that they may view as foreign, or even unfriendly, territory. Interspersing the lecture with discussions related to more foundational questions on students' minds can help to establish an open atmosphere where students are more receptive to the foreign concepts of science. By engaging students with issues that are topmost in their minds, we can hope to establish some common ground on which we can further construct the content of the course.

Besides asking students their opinions on the meaning of life, I also posed two other questions at different times during the semester: "What one question would you most wish to have answered?" and "Are there things which lie outside the scope of science?"

Student-response data

Data from the question, "What is the meaning or purpose of your existence?" are presented according to four broad categories in Figure 1. There were 740 total student responses. The "self-focused" category (35%) included responses such as "To be happy," or just, "To survive." In the "others-focused" category (29%), were responses of the type, "To help others," or "To improve society." The "God-focused" category (19%) mostly contained statements such as, "To serve and love God." Those who fell into the "non-focused" category (18%) said that they didn't know their purpose, or stated, "There is no purpose."

Data from the survey question, "What one question would you most wish to have answered?" are presented according to three categories in Figure 2. There were 625 total student responses. Those who wished to know the answer to metaphysical questions (50%) responded, for example, with "What is the purpose life?" or "What happens after we die?" or, "Is there a God?" The "questions-within-science" category (34%) primarily included queries such as, "Is there life on other planets?" or "How did the universe and life begin?" Personal questions (16%) related mostly to questions about the future or about relationships.

For the question, "Are there things which lie outside the scope of science?" 85% of students responded, "Yes," and only 15% said, "No, all things are, or could be, explained by science." The breakdown for the "Yes" responses is summarized in four broad categories in Figure 3. There were 600 total ("Yes" and "No") student responses. Spiritual phenomena (35%), which students believe lie outside of science, included God, faith, religion, and miracles (medical recoveries, and so on). …