Feed on

At the start of the semester, we give our students a lot of information to help them succeed in our courses.  We distribute and explain syllabi, we introduce ourselves and our academic backgrounds, we share helpful outside resources with our students, and many of us distribute tips for success in the course.  But communication at the start of the semester should go in both directions.  What can you do to learn about your students academically and personally?


  1. Collect surveys

Collect surveys to learn information about your students.  One question you should always include is “Is there anything else you’d like me to know about you?” This space allows students to share their particular experiences, circumstances, or struggles with you, if they so wish.  In addition, you might ask about students’

  • Personal background
  • Past experience in the discipline
  • Expectations for the course
  • Interest in the subject or discipline
  • Concerns about the course
  • Career or personal goals
  • Outside interests or hobbies

Tailor your survey to target the information you find useful.  You can find an example student survey on p. 11 of this handout.

I read through my surveys on a few different occasions, with my Online Photo sheet out in front of me.  (Find Online Photo on InsideND or ask the primary instructor of your course if you do not have access).  This strategy of matching students’ names and faces with some personal details is one of the best ways I’ve found to learn student names.  See more of our suggestions on learning student names here.


  1. Ask what students expect from you

I make talking about expectations a two-way conversation when I introduce my syllabus. I begin by asking what students expect from me.  (Hint: The most common thing I hear is the desire for clarity in my expectations and communication.)  We then talk about what I can do to meet those expectations.  Often, I can explain how I then explain how my policies address their concerns.  Occasionally, it requires us together thinking about how we can address a problem. Be transparent with your students about what you can and cannot change.  Be willing to experiment or make small changes.

Even if you have already talked about your syllabus, you can still ask students about their expectations.  You might plan to address or re-address student concerns at timely moments in the upcoming weeks, such as before the first exam or the first time you have a difficult discussion planned.


  1. Collect written work

Collect a short piece of low-stakes or no-stakes work, such as a pretest, short paper or written reflection, from students in the first week or two of the semester. Choose an assignment that incorporates the kinds of skills students will be using and building on throughout the semester. Seeing what the students produce will help you diagnose common strengths or weaknesses, allowing you to target later lessons to your students’ needs.  In the event any of your students have major problems, such as missing requisite skills for the course, you can get them connected to the necessary resources immediately.  For more on the benefits of assigning work early in the semester, check out this previous post on the topic.


Learning about your students not only provides you with information you need for a successful semester, but it also helps your students feel welcomed and valued in your classroom.

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