Tips for New Instructors: The Attendance Poll Question

In all my years of teaching I tried out many, many different approaches to class discussion, writing assignments, reading lists–you name it. I firmly believe that instructors should embrace change and challenge themselves to revise their habits of teaching, particularly as the semesters become years. However, I also believe there can exist the rare tool that works every time. The reason I know this is that I found it. I even used it at the beginning of every class I ever taught: the attendance poll question.

I didn’t invent it, but like all instructors know, teaching is all about drinking from the endless well of collective wisdom and experience shared by every teacher who’s ever done something that’s worked in the classroom. In brief, the attendance poll question is a query that the instructor asks every student at the start of every class as she takes roll. These questions, as you can see from the list below, vary from the impersonal to (somewhat) personal. The value of these questions is twofold: 1) no matter what happens after the attendance poll Q&A, each student has shared something with their peers and instructors; 2) the students are reminded every class period that their instructor, while concerned and dedicated to the goals of educating them on the subject matter at hand, first and foremost recognizes them as people who hold particular tastes, interests, opinions, and ideas. Here’s a running list of questions that represent the efforts of myself and another veteran instructor (who just happens to live in my home).

Feel free to share this list widely and with reckless abandon.

1. Where does your name come from?
2. You’re on the train listening to your headphones. A few seats away from you, two people start arguing. Do you take off your headphones?
3. You get on an elevator with people you don’t know. What do you look at?
4. Walking down the sidewalk, you see someone twenty yards away. Do you say hello, give the little smile/nod, or do you avert your eyes?
5. Name something popular you don’t like.
6. You go to a restaurant, and your server brings you the wrong order. The food is fine, but it’s not really what you wanted. Do you complain?
7. You go to a movie and the picture is out of focus. Do you get up and find the manager, or do you wait for someone else to do it?
8. Your cell phone breaks. You can make calls or text, but not both. Which do you choose?
9. What word or phrase do you overuse?
10. Where do you come from?
11. What do you consider an overrated topic of conversation?
12. What was the last good movie you saw?
13. What was the last bad movie you saw?
14. Name a place you would like to visit.
15. What street did you grow up on?
16. To what would you change your name, if you had to change your name?
17. What was your favorite cartoon as a kid?
18. Where do you get your news?
19. What subject do you know the most about?
20. What was your childhood pet, and what was its name?
21. What is your favorite magazine?
22. Who is your favorite actor or actress?
23. What do you like (or not like) about where you live?
24. What attribute do you most admire in other people?
25. What attribute do you most dislike in other people?
26. Would you rather have a job that is fun or pays well?
27. Is the glass half empty or half full?
28. What are you looking forward to?
29. What is the last argument you got into?
30. What do you believe in?
31. What is your karaoke song?
32. What is your guilty pleasure?
33. What is something you like to eat that your friends think is gross?
34. If you had to go a year without soft drinks or a year without desserts, which would you choose?
35. What is your favorite sports team?
36. One to Ten: How much do you distrust the government?
37. Which is worse: hot or cold?
38. What’s your dream job?
39. Dogs? Cats? Both? Neither?
40. What is your favorite television show?
41. What celebrity do you most dislike?
42. Would you rather believe a lie and be happy, or know the truth and be sad?
43. What academic subject do you like the least?