The first assignment for Ryerson journalism students is streeters: asking people ‘on the street’ a question or two. By the end of their first year, they are posing questions to hundreds of people to conduct a public opinion poll. This year, the results from the Mega Poll grabbed the headlines.
The survey of 1,179 Ryerson students found they are split over one of the most controversial proposals for university students: allowing them to opt-out of fees that support some student services.
First-year instructors Sally Goldberg Powell and Kalli Anderson discussed the process of conducting the Mega Poll and what students learn from it for the RSJ newsletter.
Sally Goldberg Powell, instructor, JRN 106
The Mega Poll has become kind of a tradition, maybe even an initiation, at the School of Journalism for the last four years. Every first-year journalism student is part of it, and while they didn’t come to school to become pollsters, it is a cool learning experience for folks who are likely to use poll data at one time or another in their careers.
With nearly 140 students in first-year, the class can undertake a big research project together as a team. If every student conducting the poll gets responses from ten people, we can end up with a large sample of the student population. We can find out some things about this campus that we couldn’t find out in any other way. The size of the class becomes an asset.
And with this in mind, this year The Ryersonian collaborated with us and added some questions of their own to the poll about the RSU elections that they were able to use in their own reporting.
It’s tricky setting out the rules, and every year I think we get closer and closer to making the poll as scientific as possible, but no doubt that’s a challenge. Still, I think it’s worth it for the experience. Even the fact it’s tricky is a teachable moment.
The students don’t just conduct the poll. After we gather the results, they learn how to use pivot tables to focus in on certain findings. It’s like detective work and many students who are overwhelmed at first end up having fun with data. Those who thought they hated math might just realize they don’t hate math if they care about the results.
Kalli Anderson, instructor, JRN 105
Once students have had a chance to learn how to dig into the data using pivot tables in Sally’s class, they write hard news stories about the poll results in JRN 105 Multimedia News Reporting. I think it’s so important for journalists to get comfortable finding the story inside the numbers and to learn how to interpret data accurately and present it to our audiences in a way that’s both engaging and newsworthy. In preparation for this assignment, students learned about margins of error (and how these grow as sample sizes shrink), the difference between causation and correlation and how to calculate a percent change versus a percentage point change. Some students were nervous about the math end of things at first, but it was great to see their confidence grow as they mastered these concepts and were able to make their own accurate calculations.
Students came up with a focus for their story based on the results they found most surprising, interesting or informative and did further reporting, including “streeters” with Ryerson students to get at the “Why” behind the numbers. We focus on what data can and can’t tell us and the importance of seeking out people with personal lived experience or professional expertise to help explain and give meaning to the data. I think this assignment is a great way for students to start to see first-hand how neither anecdotal accounts nor statistics alone are enough to give a full picture of an issue or trend. And they get to see how data can be a starting point for a deeper dive into a bigger systemic or accountability issue that might have been hiding in plain sight.
After they submit their stories, the top stories get the opportunity to be published in the Ryersonian, which is the first chance at a byline for many students and a great way to end their first year as student journalists.
— Kalli Anderson (@kallipearl) March 27, 2019