Using iPads for Survey Data Collection in the Communication Research Class

Surveys are a common method uses in communication research class projects. Since I started teaching this class at Shepherd University, I’ve added a fun, cool feature that really brings the survey data collection process to life!

Students in my Comm 435 Communication Research class (see all posts on Comm 435; see syllabus) now use iPads for data collection in the field. My students grab a department iPad and go around campus to recruit participants. The participants complete the surveys on the iPads, and the data is synched to the cloud where it can be downloaded and analyzed.



For the final of three hands-on projects in my class, student teams identify a problem or question they have pertaining to Shepherd University or the local community. They design a study to research that problem. In my first two hands-on projects, students don’t design the methods or the measurements. They are based on scenarios I set up and materials I provide. For example, here’s a discussion of my computer-assisted content analysis assignment.

As a part of the assignment for today’s post, students are required to conduct 1) surveys, and 2) either focus groups or interviews. Let’s talk about the surveys:

After discussing surveys as a method, with a particular focus on survey design and considerations, each team designs a brief survey.

In the lecture before they create the survey, I lecture on important considerations in survey design. And then students do an in class activity to practice putting these concepts into motion using a mock scenario. I then provide feedback on their survey design, and help them make improvements.

The class the following time we meet is dedicated to helping students design measurements that meet the research objective and research questions they’ve developed that will help them get the answers to the questions they want to know. The day is also dedicated to helping them write effective survey questions (as well as interview or focus group questions, for that part of the assignment). I started dedicating an entire class period to measurement design after spotting this as a major weakness in the projects last semester.

Next, rather than using paper & pen, or (which limits students to only 10 questions), teams program their surveys into It is a free, open access web survey tool designed by folks at Columbia University. So, we spend the 3rd day learning how to use to program their surveys. I’ll talk in detail about that in the next post.

During data collection week, students check out department iPads, load the survey onto their iPad, and go out into the field to collect data. A group of students will check out several iPads and hit up the student union, library, or campus quads and collect data fairly quickly. The data syncs automatically over our campus-wide wifi! That means, when all students get back to the computer lab, their data – from each iPad used – is already synced to where it could be downloaded and analyzed.

Pretty cool, huh? It is my favorite project that we do in my communication research class and the students seem to really enjoy using the iPads for surveys.

There are a few caveats.

  1. After the data is collected, in order for it to be analyzed in SPSS it has to be cleaned. If you do formhub, you’ll notice that the data you get doesn’t quite fit in with the format SPSS needs. So, I spend a few hours before we meet as a class to look at the data that was collected and analyze it.
  2. This year, seems to be moving painfully slow. I’ve had trouble last week getting the website to work. And am still having trouble this week. With data collection set to start tomorrow, I am stressing that it may not work! – update: I’ve read in several places about ongoing stability issues with Formhub. I’m now using instead which works the exact same way! I’ve updated verbiage above to reflect that.

I’ve provided a copy of the assignment below. Enjoy!

On my next post, I will provide info on programming surveys into the XLS forms format, which is a bit tricky. I spend a day in class teaching this. I’ll also show you how to load the surveys onto the iPads and get them synced up to the computer if you aren’t on WiFi when you collect the data.

photo: CC by Sean MacEntee

Teaching College Writing Using the Hemingway App

If he were alive today, would Ernest Hemingway be great at writing Tweets?

I like to think that he would. After all, he is attributed with writing the famous 6-word novel: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” (though his authorship of the story is speculation).


We’ve all been assigned one or more Ernest Hemingway novels in school. It is there we were introduced to his minimalistic style of writing, known as the ‘iceberg theory’ of writing. The iceberg theory, or theory of omission, can be summed up with the following quote (which I share with my students) from Death in the Afternoon:

“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.  The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

Hemingway, there’s an app for that:

My Writing Across Platforms class (syllabus) teaches students to write news releases, for social media, content marketing blogging, and white papers. As stated in my Spring 2015 overview of the course, it is my goal to help my students focus on writing concise, specific, clear, powerful text across their assignments.

Enter, the HemingwayApp. This free online tool helps “make your writing bold and clear” (There is a paid desktop version, too). The app is easy to use.

Type or paste your text into the website and click “edit.”

The app highlights the following:

  • Wordy or convoluted writing.
  • Unnecessary adverbs
  • Unnecessarily complex terms
  • Passive voice


A readability score is assigned based on the above.  The app assigns a readability score (thanks Hemingway app!)

The app is great. You can see the improvements to your score based on changes you’ve made, allowing for quick feedback and improvement throughout the writing and editing process.

How I’m using The App and emphasizing concise communication:

In my writing class, I talk on the first day about the power and importance of each word. I use a blind date or another situation where first impressions count. I have students write the first 2 sentences they’d say in the situation, providing a specific goal they want to achieve – e.g., make a positive first impression to set the tone for the date. This fun exercise gets them thinking about goal-driven writing and what all they need to communicate – overt and subtle – with only a handful of words.

We then discuss how this applies to other forms of writing – from news releases to Tweets – where first impressions mean everything and failure to grab attention means failure, every word counts.

I have students write 3-4 sentences about where they’d go if they had a car full of gas, but no money.

Then, I provide a quote that we discuss including writing tips to achieve this:

The quote (from the Elements of Style – a great read) is: “If your every sentence admits a doubt, your writing will lack authority.”

Tips, derived largely from Elements of Style, include:

  • Active Voice – subject performs action.
  • Rewrite/reorganize whenever possible to convey the message with fewer words.
    • “ought to” = “should”; “It would be good if you” or “I was wondering” = “Will you”
  • Clarify the vague .
  • Replace adjectives with precise verbs.
  • Specific examples should replace vague or unspecific nouns.
  • Replace vague pronouns.
  • Remove NEGATIVE writing – when they say ‘not’ put it into the positive.
    • Example: “Not good.” replace with “bad”; “not present” replace with “absent”

Students switch their writing with a partner. Their goal is to use the writing tips I provide to remove any unnecessary word and strengthen sentences. We talk about how much they were able to cut from their partner’s writing. (Note: Sometimes they cut too much – which ties to the Hemingway quote below, and can be discussed with the quote).

In a follow-up class, I introduce the Iceberg theory and we chat a little about Hemingway’s style, as most students have read his work. I provide the quote above, and point out the below part of the quote I omitted when I first introduced the quote above, and we discuss this critical point and the trouble of knowing what to omit, from the exercise above:

“The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”

After this, I have students implement the Hemingway App in their writing exercises in class. I provide strict word limits, such as for a news release exercise we did in class last Tuesday.

So far, we’ve just started using the app. And already I see students tinkering to strengthen their writing. It is my sense that the app will be a great help as they move along, so long as they commit to using it.

I plan to continue to remind them of the goal for concise, clear, powerful writing with new angles or tips during writing exercises throughout the semester.

I plan to continue to use the app for my own writing, too. I tell my students that becoming a great writer is a lifelong journey we all must be on.

Have you used the Hemingway app to teach writing? How have you found it? What tips do you have?

Fiction Aside:

So what’s my favorite Hemingway novel? If you’ve read my bio, you know I prefer Fitzgerald (a great book on their friendship turned sour is Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald). But I loved the autobiographical A Moveable Feast – perhaps because there is a section on his adventures with Fitzgerald! 😛

What’s your favorite Hemingway story?

photo of Hemingway in public domain; screen grab of Hemingway app

My Fall 2014 Social Media Class Project In Review


In the last few posts, I’ve been writing about my Social Media class and the semester project we’ve been doing. To recap, students create a social media content strategy for our department’s social media (the details of the assignment are on the previous post). They then use this plan to create content for the department. They create content 3  times, each time they are creating content for a certain time period. The content is presented to the class and then goes through an editorial process (i.e.., I grade them and make any needed mods) if needed before being published.

With the semester winding down, I want to share some of the work the students have been doing!

Students have done a great job across the semester and have worked hard to try to create content that will resonate with students while also targeting our goals and conveying our key messages. Running an account for a small university department is a unique challenge. Although as professors we are exhilarated by what we teach and have a love and passion for school, it is a bit tougher to get students excited about, well, that part of the college experience responsible for all the work they have to do. 🙂 Believe it or not, school is the last thing some students want to be thinking about when they aren’t in class. 🙂 And I think having to try to overcome the challenge of promoting school is a great experience for students. I’m very pleased with how the students have done in the face of these challenges. The semester began with very little content on our accounts, and few followers.

Students have done a particularly strong job working between groups to create content that works across platforms. For example, you’ll see how some of our blog posts tie into our Instagram and Twitter in regard to profiles of students and faculty.

Our class was divided into 3 groups:

Twitter – Prior to the class starting, we had a Twitter account but it was rarely posted to. Now, we have a variety of content from the informative to reminders of important dates to community-building memes and humorous posts students in our department can relate to.
Blog – The blog is brand new and our department hasn’t done much to publicize it yet. But students have done a great job getting it going. We’ve had highlights of students and insights into classes and events students are apart of. Note: Part of the reason it hasn’t been publicized, is the university is in a tradition stage with its website. And we are waiting to see how that will impact our online presence.
Instagram – Similar to Twitter, Instagram was something we had set up. But hadn’t done much with before the semester. Our Instagram team  began creating videos to highlight professors and students (we’ve had a few sound issues, but are working them out). These videos are accompanied by photos of the individual “behind the scenes.” There are also other photos of other events.

Students have one more round of content they will be turning in this week. And that content will be scheduled to carry us through the winter break.

Altogether, I’m very pleased with how students have worked to help humanize our department and enable current students to connect with one another and perspective students to get a look at who we are and what we do.  I feel we are moving in the right direction.  In the last few days, interest in our content has really taken off as students have reached out and begun highlighting the work their fellow students are doing. I am excited to see how the department’s social media grows and advances in time.

Is this a project I would do again? Absolutely. Students really bought into this project and worked hard to see it through. They expressed to me that they learned a lot from the class and doing this project. And, they said they enjoyed the opportunity to get hands-on experience. It was a very fun semester! I had a great bunch of students and I am very proud of all of them! I plan to continue with this assignment next year.

I’m not teaching Social Media next semester. So where will the department’s social media content for Spring 2014 come from? I’m not entirely sure yet. But I’ve got some ideas in the works and a strong foundation to build upon!

Thoughts? Questions? Recommendations for this project? Would love your comments and feedback below or send me a Tweet.
– Cheers!

A Look at My Social Media Content Strategy Assignment

Several weeks ago I mentioned that a big change in my Comm 322 Social Media class this semester (syllabus), is that students will be working to create the social media for our department’s Twitter, Instagram, and a brand new blog.

getexcitedI want to share a little about the first assignment students do towards this project. My goal with this project is to provide students opportunities to apply what they are learning in class to planning and executing social media content plans for an organization.

One of my main emphases is getting them intermediate experience planning and thinking strategically about social media content strategy. They get advanced experience with these things in the campaigns class. So social media class is a great stepping stone.

So here’s what I did. I assigned a strategy plan assignment that students complete as the first step in the class. This gets them creating a plan for the type of content they want to produce, and how that content will align with our target audience, theme, and key messages, which I provide for them and emphasize repeatedly. The purpose is for them to learn to align their content plans with the overarching framework for our content – where we want to go.

For example: One of our key messages for the Comm Department’s social media is: “Department classes are exciting, dynamic, relevant and innovative”

(As a note: A senior completed an original plan for our department social media for a capstone project in a previous semester. I worked with that student to create some of this background planning, and some of it I created or modified)

They then produce goals and objectives (or adapt from the goals & objectives a student created in a project he completed), create a channel purpose statement, and create a team workflow for how they plan to get their work done. I provide a series of roles for this, which you can see in the assignment below.

To go along with their plan, they present to the class some sample content that aligns with their strategy plan and that they would like to see posted to our department social media. Other classmates complete an evaluation sheet of their peers, assessing in part whether the content is consistent with our class-wide goals, theme, audience, and messages. They also provide feedback on what content should be posted or not. And we only post the best content that aligns with our theme, messages, and hits our target audience.

So, for example, does the content your team is proposing creating align with our key messages such as the one I’ve shared above?

From there, I give students feedback on any adjustments to their plans or the type of content they want to create. And from there, they begin working on creating content that aligns with their plan – which they do 3 more times during the semester (creating the content, not redoing the plan). They present the content they created for a given time period class their content several weeks later.

So far I am really enjoying this project. I truly believe students are getting to think through what they are learning and apply it. This way, they can see it put to practice, learn about the roadblocks and challenges, and get the benefit of the successes. Students have done a great job collaborating across teams to ensure consistency across different social channels, which is something else I emphasize in the class – the importance of consistent messaging and content experiences across multiple screens, which Brito talks about in Your Brand: The Next Media Company (one of our course books – thanks to Karen Freberg for recommending this text!). I’ll talk a little bit more about how the teams are organized, and share the content they’ve created in an upcoming post!

Here is the assignment! Let me know if you have any questions, or thoughts on how i can modify or improve it!

Social Media Class Fall 2014: Class Project Overview

At the start of each semester I try to share relevant syllabi for classes I’m teaching that semester (hint: see all my syllabi in the menu on the left). Here are my plans for my social media class this semester. I’d like to discuss the major project that students will work on this semester, that has a series of assignments tied to it. Then, I will post the syllabi in an upcoming post.

I’ve taught this class differently each time I’ve taught it. And this is my 4th time teaching this class. Maybe my 5th. I always find myself wanting to try something new.

Recently, I’ve had projects that span the entire semester. Last year students were responsible for writing niche blogs across the course of the semester. (here’s the syllabus from last year) They were responsible for planning the blogs and then promoting them, as well as writing them of course – here’s my review on that project at the  end of the semester. This year I’m doing something different and unique – and a bit risky. And I’m interested to see how it goes. My students will be responsible for planning and creating content for our department’s social media.

Here’s my thinking for this. I want my students to get hands on experience planning a social media campaign. And I want them to get experience executing it and dealing with the results of the campaign – having opportunities to see how their content goes over with an audience (what works, what doesn’t, why?), interacting with the audience, and seeing the results of their work. I also want them to be able to have experience directly influencing engagement and measuring it.

I could partner with an organization to do this. But I’m not. Students do this in our Strategic Campaigns class, where they are working this year with an awesome client (I’ll talk about that in a future post). Those students will put together a plan for that organization. When working for someone else, there are a number of limitations. And the campaigns class focuses more heavily on how to put together the campaign plan from scratch. The students will present their plan and hopefully the client will like it and go on to use it. But students in my social media class are in a preparatory stage for the campaigns class. I want them to go into that class already with some experience.

Running the social media for our class enables me to create a laboratory of sorts where we can experiment and I can have close oversight of what we’re doing. Since I have access to all the accounts, I will have editorial control over what we publish. And because there is no client involved, managing this process and channels of communication will be much more simplified.

This also ties into our goals as a department. Our department here at Shepherd University is small. And we don’t have a lot in terms of a social media presence at the moment. We decided as a department that we ought to change this and discussed a number of ways to get students involved in the process like capstone projects, a club, etc. We recognize the importance of social media in connecting with alumni, attracting new students, and keeping our current students engaged and excited for what we offer. And so I decided, what better opportunity to help my students learn by doing than to empower them to help us build this social media presence that I can manage.

And I know you are thinking there are a number of risks involved in this, like, what if the students create poor quality content? What if the content isn’t appropriate? I’ve built in a number of incentives and checkpoints (e.g., I’m the gatekeeper of what gets posted, and students and myself decide collectively what the best content is – I’ll try and discuss how that will work in a future post) But, I think we need to encourage our students to take risks and I think as professors we need to take risks. If we don’t push and try new things, then how can we expect to cultivate students who are innovators? If we don’t let them take control and learn by doing, how will they be able to do it when they get out in the work force and suddenly the responsibility of, say, Tweeting for this non profit or that brand (See: the interns take the blame for social media slips)?

I look at my classroom as a laboratory for experimenting and trying new things. Perhaps this model will work excellently or perhaps I’ll find that the classroom isn’t the best place for this and a social media club is a better solution. But I’m so excited to see how it goes and I think students are going to feel empowered and thrilled to be the ones communicating with and building a relationship with their peers! In fact, this is a major benefit – students understand and relate to their peers better than I can. They, in theory at least, should be able to come up with content that more closely matches what will be attractive to their peers.

So in quick summary, here’s how it will work: A former student put together a strategic plan for our department’s social media for his capstone project. Students will take the foundation of and build off of his plan – SWOT, goals, objectives, messages, social media channel purpose statement, etc – and do their own planning, such as original audience research, build strategies and tactics, etc.

Each team will be in charge of a different social channel – e.g., Instagram, Twitter. They’ll work over a series of weeks to build content that they’ll present to the class. We’ll decide as a class what content will be posted – only the best, and only content that is consistent with our plan. They must demonstrate how the content they are proposing is consistent with our class plan. We’ll then schedule the content out. And they’ll begin creating more content, that they’ll present, we’ll vote on. The cycle continues.

I hope this provides students a focused, strategic, and hands on learning opportunity where the results are tangible and something they can take pride in.

I’ve spent a lot of time planning this out, and all the accompanying in class activities and assignments. I will write more about these activities and assignments this semester and expand on how this is all planned to work. Right now, students are in the planning stages and I am trying to teach them about the stages of audience research and planning content that meets objectives, is consistent with our messages, fits consistently platforms, and meets our project theme – that the Communication Department at Shepherd University is “the best kept secret on campus.”

What do think? Is this a good idea for a class project? Why/Why not? What recommendations or thoughts do you have? Would you do something like this in your department? Why/Why not?


  • Cheers!
  • Matt

graphic: CC Sean MacEntee

Sentiment Analysis using Content Analysis Software: Project Assignment

In the last two posts, I’ve been discussing the Yoshikoder sentiment analysis project in my Communication Research class here at Shepherd University.

My first post looked at the project in general. And the second, most recent post, looked at how to teach computer-assisted content analysis using the Yoshikoder computer-assisted content analysis software and the activities I provide my students to prepare them for the project.

I encourage you to check out those posts for background and set up! Ok, now on to sharing the assignment itself and providing a brief overview of it.

As I’ve stated elsewhere, the purpose of this assignment is to

1) give students a hands-on look under the hood of sentiment analysis – that is, to understand HOW it works and its flaws.

2) To teach students via hands=on experience about quantitative content analysis, particularly computer-assisted content analysis

3) To teach them how to conduct a computer-assisted content analysis using software (Yoshikoder)

So here’s the set up to the assignment (which you can see below). This hands-on learning project is based on a real brand and a realistic but made up scenario. I do this with both this assignment, and my first project in this class.  Specifically, I provide The Situation or Problem / Campaign goals and objectives (of an imaginary campaign that is ongoing or happened) / benchmarks / KPIs.

In this case, the situation had to do with a popular online retail brand and rising customer complains and dissatisfaction as the brand has grown beyond its core base of loyal customers in recent years.I’ve redacted the brand and the situation from the below assignment. But you can fill in your own.

I rely on Stacks (2011) model for writing the problem, goals, objectives.  While I provide the research objective(s) in my first project, in this project students must come up with the research objective(s) and RQ(s).

I then provide some benchmarks. In this scenario, at a certain point in time sentiment was strong (let’s say, 70% positive). And then after the hypothetical situation, it dropped (say, to 50%). The students have been recently introduced to the concepts of benchmarks and KPIs via a brief lecture, so this is their first experience with these concepts. They are given 1 KPI (let’s say 65% positive sentiment) against which to measure their success. Keep in mind that the situation assumes that a campaign already took place aimed at addressing decreased customer satisfaction and negative comments on Twitter addressed at the brand of choice. We are now seeking to assess whether this campaign that happened successfully increased sentiment towards the brand (at a deeper level, repaired relationships and the image of the brand among the online community).

There are other important considerations students must make:

1) Since we’ve discussed sentiment and its flaws, they need to think about the valence of sentiment (The AFINN dictionary scores terms from -5 to +5), and they need to research and understand how AFINN was designed and works (I provide some sources to get them started). If you’re not familiar with the AFINN dictionary, it was designed for sentiment analysis of microblogs.It is a free sentiment dictionary of terms you can download and use in Yoshikoder. 

For more details on the assignment, check out the assignment embedded below and the requirements for what must be turned in.

As I’ve noted in a previous post, this project isn’t perfect. But it is a fairly straightforward and accessible learning experience for students who are in their first semester of experiencing how research can be conducted. It covers a wide array of experiences and learning opportunities – from discussion of what sentiment is, to understanding its flaws, to understanding the flaws of quantitative content analysis, to learning to apply a number of key research terms, as well as providing exposure to how to write research reports. The project itself is bolstered by several lectures, it comes about 1/2 way through the semester, and takes several days in the classroom of hands on learning. Students of course finish the writing up outside of class. But we do the analysis all in class to ensure students are getting my help as the “guide on the side.”

My previous post covers some activities we do to build up to this assignment.

So that’s all for now! Please feel to use this assignment, to modify it, and improve it. If you do, come back and share how you have or how you would improve upon it and modify it in the comments below!

If you want to know more about my Communication Research class, please see this post which includes the syllabus.

Teaching Computer-Assisted Content Analysis with Yoshikoder

Last blog post I discussed the second project in my applied research class, a sentiment analysis of Tweets using Yoshikoder – a free computer-assisted content analysis program from Harvard.

As promised, I want to share my assignment, and my handout for students that teaches them how to use Yoshikoder. Before we do the project, however, I do a brief in class activity to get students learning how to use Yoshikoder. So let’s start there for today’s post. And next post, I’ll share the assignment itself.


What I like to do, is present the problem to the students via the project assignment. Then, we go back and start learning what we’d need to do to solve the problem. So, after lecturing about what sentiment analysis is and why it is important, I get students introduced first to the idea of constructing a coding sheet for keywords by taking a list of keywords and adding them to categories.

First, we talk about the idea in class, and I show them some simple examples, like: If I wanted to code a sample for the presence of “sunshine” – what words would I need? Students brainstorm things like  start, sun, sunny, sunshine, etc., etc.

We discuss the importance of mutual exclusivity, being exhaustive, etc.

I show an example from my dissertation which looked at agenda setting topics on Twitter.

On the class day before I introduce Yoshikoder to the class, students do a practice assignment where I give them a list of random terms related to politics and elections. They then have to create “positive” and “negative” content categories using the terms. The terms aren’t necessarily well fit for this exercise, which gets them thinking a bit… They then hand code a sample of Tweets I provide about two different politicians. I tend to use the most recent election. So, in this case Obama and Romney. They are frustrated by having to hand code these Tweets – but a little trick is to do a search for the exact phrases in the Tweet files on the computer and they are done fairly quickly. Ok, so on the next class period:

1) Practice with Yoshikoder We do the same basic task, but this time they learn to program their “positive” and “negative” categories into Yoshikoder. They then load the Tweets (which I have saved as a txt file) and analyze them for the presence of their positive and negative content categories. This is a great point to stop and have students assess the reliability between what they hand coded and what the computer coded. Often, there will be discrepancies. And this makes for a great opportunity for discussion.

Here is the activity that I use in class. I also provide Tweets that I’ve downloaded using the search terms for the politician/candidate I’m using in the activity (e.g., Obama; Romney) in plain text format so Yoshikoder can read it. Also, see the below handout which I provide students to show them how to use Yoshikoder and how to program, and run the analyses I just described.

As I mentioned above, I create a handout that I like to give students that explains the different functionalities of Yoshikoder and how to run the analyses. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, I like to provide handouts. And the one below isn’t one of my more elaborate handouts. But it provides a quick overview with some screen shots to show what buttons need to be clicked. This is super helpful if you are trying to learn Yoshikoder, or want to use it alongside the activity (discussed in this post or the project discussed in my last post, and which I will provide in my next blog post).

Enjoy! .

EDIT: The assignment is now up. See the post.

If you’d like to learn more about using Yoshikoder, I found this great tutorial:

– Cheers! Matt