How (and Why!) to Write a Pre-Course Survey or Questionnaire

by Kristina Wilson


Have you ever wished that you knew a little more about your students, beyond what is shared in an introduction discussion? Have you ever hoped that students might take a moment to reflect on success strategies before your course begins? Would you like to be certain that students have reviewed the materials needed to get started in your class?

If so, a pre-course survey or questionnaire may be just the way to get started in your online or hybrid class.

Check out three different types of pre-course surveys and questionnaires, including rationale, approaches, and question types,

Learning About Your Students: What do you want to know about them?

A survey or questionnaire can help conduct a critical needs assessment about where your students are and what they want to accomplish in your course. Because this takes place “behind the scenes” and is only shared with the instructor, rather than in a public discussion forum, you may be more likely to receive candid responses.

Prior Knowledge: You can ask students about their prior knowledge or exposure to a topic, which is especially appreciated in an adult education context as your students will likely have some stories to tell. Have they taken other courses similar to this one? Have they worked in this field before, or had to create similar projects or written work in a workplace context? This can help you call on specific students in the discussions, asking those with (or without!) expertise to chime in with their perspectives, or create project groups combining students with a variety of experiences.

Demographics: Are you looking to get a quick feel for the type of student in your class? You might consider asking a few demographic questions, under the condition that responses will be kept anonymous. You might ask what time zone students are in, so that you can time announcements and assignment deadlines accordingly. You might also ask if the student is working full time or part-time or is seeking a job. This could help dictate the content for your announcements (lot of job descriptions in your field!), set up networking connections between students, or assist in understanding if a student is struggling to meet deadlines. This would also be a great opportunity to ask what pronouns students prefer.

Please keep in mind that there are demographics questions that would likely not be appropriate to ask in this context, such as race, gender, or age. If students would like to share this information in the introductions discussion, they may voluntarily do so.

Curiosity: What do your students want to learn about? Are they hoping that specific topics will arise in the course? You can use information about students’ interests to inform the resources you share in discussions and announcements, if not tailor assignments and content specifically to what will intrigue your students as well as meet course learning objectives.

Technology Fluency: A survey like this is also a great place to ask about technology fluency. Some students will struggle to use Canvas and other web-based technologies, and asking about their skills and apprehensions in this area can help you point students to necessary resources. Students with disabilities on your class might use a question like this to self-identify if they navigate using the keyboard or a screenreader.

Preferred Feedback Style: You might also ask students about their preferred feedback style. Some students prefer direct feedback and others a balance of successes and opportunities. Some students prefer annotations throughout and others prefer endnotes. Some students would love an audio recording or screencast with feedback. If you know your students’ preferences, you can tailor your responses to maximum effect.

Helping Your Students Plan and Set Goals: What strategies will they use while working on the course? What do they plan to accomplish?

Often, students reflect only as they complete the ubiquitous Course and Teacher Evaluations (CTECs) at the very end of a quarter. Giving students an opportunity to reflect early on in your course through a pre-course survey or questionnaire can help set the stage for successful course-completion strategies. These kinds of questions can help students flex metacognitive skills and become more aware of their learning habits. As an instructor, this can help you provide more specific feedback on student work, suggesting similar strategies and stretch goals.

Reflection on Strategies: Metacognitive reflection questions ask how students get things done. Do you take marginal notes or highlight as you read? Where do you read? On the bus or train, at home late at night, during your lunch hour at work? Are there drafting or brainstorming strategies you use when writing? What conditions do you need to do your best work? Complete silence? The hum of a coffeeshop? Wifi disconnected so that you don’t stray from the task at hand? Wifi connected so that you can conduct research quickly when you have a question?

Planning Ahead: Beyond what has worked for students in the past, you might ask about strategies they will use specifically in this class. What times each week do you have earmarked to work on this course? It can also be helpful to ask students to review the class week by week, and ask questions about specific course sequences. Are there any weeks that will be tough for you, because of the topic or workload that week? Are there any resources or assignments in the course that you’re really looking forward to?

Setting Goals: Beyond asking students what they anticipate struggling with or enjoying, a pre-course survey or questionnaire is a great place to ask students to set goals for themselves. You might ask them to review the learning objectives, asking what they will commit to accomplishing. And beyond the learning objectives for the course, are there other skills or competencies they plan to work on in the course? Do they have any suggestions for the instructor about strategies for helping meet those goals?

Helping Your Students Recall: What critical information do students need before the course starts?

The Quality Matters rubric contains a General Standard on the Course Overview and Introduction, including nine substandards. Of these, the first two can be directly bolstered by incorporating a recall-based pre-course survey or questionnaire in your course.

  • 1.1 – Introductions make clear where to get started and where to find various course components.
  • 1.2 – Learners are introduced to the purpose and structure of the course.

Giving students an opportunity to quiz themselves not on the course topic but on the course itself–how to get started in the course, how to navigate the course, what the course should help students accomplish, and how the course is structured–can help instructors send fewer emails saying, “It’s in the syllabus!”

Given multiple choice or true/false question types, these kinds of pre-course surveys can be automatically scored. Don’t forget to compose feedback for incorrect responses and allow multiple attempts!

Syllabus Quiz: At their core, online classes are complex websites consisting of networked pages and applications to share course content and communicate with the instructor and peers.

It can be daunting to navigate a course site, even one that is well-designed. There are so many different locations where information could be and different functions for different pages. How can we make sure that students are familiar and comfortable with the course site before jumping in to begin?

In a syllabus quiz, you might ask questions like: When are critical assignments due? What are the expectations for participation in discussions? Where do students go to find technical support? Where can students check their grades and review written feedback? What is the late work policy?

Academic Integrity Quiz: For courses at the beginning of a program, where you’ll have many new students, or writing-heavy courses such as capstone classes, an academic integrity quiz can be a great way for students to brush up on university policy, course expectations, and citation style. Informally, you could ask students for their personal definitions of academic integrity and plagiarism. More formally, you might ask them to locate academic integrity resources in the course or on the university’s website, recall course policies on plagiarism, or help determine familiarity with formatting quotations, in-text citations, and bibliographies.

Prerequisite Skills Quiz: In some courses, it is very important for incoming students to have prerequisite knowledge; say, basic algebra skills prior to beginning an accounting course. In a context like this, you might develop a brief “brush-up” quiz which tests skills students will need to be successful in the course. This goes a long way toward helping students determine if they are prepared to begin coursework and  if they need to identify support services or materials to ensure they can complete course assessments and achieve the course objectives.

How do I build a survey in Canvas?

The Quiz tool in Canvas is perfectly suited to build pre-course surveys and questionnaires. You can create a graded or ungraded survey, asking students to respond to questions you set.

The Essay question type best serves a free-response survey, but you can also use the Multiple Drop-down question type for Likert scale questions.

For something closer to a syllabus quiz or prerequisite skills quiz, you can use any of the typical question types, including Multiple Choice, True/False, Fill-in-the-Blank and Matching.

You might also want to visit the What options can I set in a quiz? Canvas guide to review the logistics for your survey or questionnaire. For example, with a syllabus quiz you might want to allow multiple attempts and allow students to keep their highest score. You can also use the Message Students Who… button to get in touch with students who have (or have not!) completed the survey.


You might also keep in mind that some faculty develop mid-course surveys, or use surveys to help take the temperature of a class every other week. Beyond using a survey at the start or the end of your course, consider how you might implement them throughout the term, perhaps to check that you are meeting your students needs in your teaching practice or as a way to debrief a team project.

As a parting thought, commit to using the information you gather in a pre-course survey or questionnaire. It’s an empty exercise (not to mention busywork for students) if you don’t tailor your teaching practice given what you now know. Make changes to your plans, switch things up, make things a little more personal. Since you know about it, do something about it.

If you’d like to implement a pre-course survey or questionnaire in your online class, reach out to your Learning Designer.