Getting to know your students

In another blog I argued that we need to know our students if we are to teach well, because teaching is about who you know, not just what you know. But, every time we start a new course we have a new group of students. How do we get to know them before the course?

One of my colleagues, Fi Graham from the Rehabilitation Teaching and Research Unit in Wellington, uses an excellent survey to get to know her students (the ‘Student profile questions’ which are linked to this blog). I interviewed Fi to find out how and why she uses these questions.


Fi teaches a course to around 30 health professionals, with a range of areas of expertise, and who are studying part-time while working. She emails the Student Profile Questions to her students before her course starts, and she asks them to send her their answers before she meets them. The answers provided by her students tell her:

  • What they already know
  • What they want to know
  • The importance they place on the different learning outcomes for the course
  • How familiar they are with the technology used in the course
  • How familiar and how interested they are in the different topics covered in the course

She then uses their answers in a variety of ways:

  1. Asking the questions is a good way of quickly building relationships in a course. By asking these questions Fi is saying to her students “I’m starting this course by listening to you. I’m interested in you.” This creates an ethos in the course that is a firm foundation for learning. As a result students are more likely to feel understood and respected as individuals, more likely to be motivated and inspired by the lecturer who took the time to get to know them a little, and they are more likely to invest more in the course.
  2. The questions offer a simple way for students to engage in the course, which takes very little time. Right from the start Fi is saying to them, “This course is for you, and I will provide you with ways to engage.” (She also offer a range of alternative ways for students to engage so they can choose which are useful for them and which are not)
  3. The answers help her to know her students as individuals, but also to know the cohort of students as a whole. For example, in any year Fi can find out which students are interested in which topics. However, one year she also found out that the whole class is more tech savvy than she assumed, and less anxious about the technical aspects of distance learning, and she found out that there was a surprising amount of interest in learning background skills like finding information and writing.
  4. Fi uses the answers from her students to explain the course objectives and the various learning tasks and why these are important, and this helps to motivate students. For example, she might say: “Many of you said the ability to communicate was one of your most important learning goals, well, one way this course will develop your communication skills is through the International Classification of Functioning framework, so that’s why we spend a lot of time on this.” Or she might say: “The essay in this course requires critical thinking skills. This was another thing that many in the class said they were interested in. So the essay is one of the places where you will get a chance to practice and refine your critical thinking skills.”
  5. This teaching method is in ‘instructional alignment’ with all of Fi’s course learning objectives. It sets a foundation for good learning in general, and it allows her to show her students the importance of any particular learning objective. For example, it shows that Fi values her students and builds a learning relationship with them, which is a useful foundation for learning any of the learning objectives in the course. And, if one of the learning objectives is to learn about x, the lecturer can use the student answers about their interests to show why learning x is important, and this is useful to motivate and help them to learn x.
  6. Fi uses the answers to ‘tweak’ the current course. For example, one year the survey indicated that there was lots of initial interest about teamwork, so Fi changed her plan for guest speakers and invited extra speakers for the course who could talk about team work.
  7. The student survey also provides useful feedback about what students want and need, which can also inform overall curriculum design for a Department, and for Departmental reviews and reports . The Department can use the answers to judge if they are hitting the mark for their students, or if they need to offer something different. For example, if it turns out that most of your students are interested in learning about x, and the Department doesn’t offer anything about x, the Department can add this into either the current course or into a follow up course. On the other hand, it is useful evidence for a Department to show that they are hitting the mark for their students with the content and design of their courses.

About Clinton Golding

Clinton Golding is Associate Professor at the University of Otago Higher Education Development Centre. His previous positions include Philosopher in Residence at Rangitoto College in Auckland, and Thinking Coordinator at Queen Margaret College in Wellington and St. Cuthbert’s College in Auckland, where he worked to develop the thinking of staff and students. He was also a senior lecturer at The University of Melbourne where he received 5 local and national teaching awards.
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