The #1 Thing Your Students Want You To Do

Photo credit: Paul H. Joseph / UBC Brand & Marketing

By Christine Goedhart

To gain a better understanding of the experiences and needs of our students, Gülnur Birol and I recently interviewed a number of UBC students who had completed biology courses. In their responses to the interview questions, these students generously shared many things that instructors could do to improve the experiences of students in their courses.

Interestingly, we found that these student-generated suggestions also had a common theme. Essentially, what these students told us in different ways is that they want instructors to get to know students and their unique situations, needs, and challenges.

This is a simple, but powerful concept, because having a better understanding of our students’ lived experiences will guide us in how to best set up a supportive classroom environment where students feel welcome and have the opportunity to succeed.

In other words, the better we know our students, the better we can create a learning environment that meets their needs, giving students the best chance of success in our courses.

Drawing upon the specific suggestions that came out of the student interview responses, here are 12 practical tips you can use to help you get to know your students:

1. Ask students to share some information about themselves at the beginning of the term

This is a strategy commonly employed by UBC instructors to learn about their students, so you might want to ask your colleagues about the types of questions they’ve found useful. You can also check out this example of a first-day info sheet. Students can submit their answers in a variety of ways, such as through Canvas, Piazza, Qualtrics, notecards, or worksheets, among other ways. Make sure to read their answers, and if possible, refer to them throughout the term.

2. Share information about yourself and your background

Sharing personal information and anecdotes, particularly your “lows” (such as failing a class, being broke, doubting yourself, or feeling like an imposter), will make you seem more human and relatable, and students will feel more comfortable interacting with you and reciprocally sharing information about themselves.

3. Arrive to the classroom space early and stay around for a bit after class ends

This provides students with an informal and convenient space to talk with you if needed. Instead of asking students to come to you, you are entering their space and they may feel less intimidated interacting with you there than going to your office hours.

4. Move around the classroom and interact with students during periods of individual or group work

This will give you a real-time view into how students are engaging with the course material and where they might be struggling. It also allows you to make more personal connections with individual students. In particular, try to make your way to the back of the classroom. Students in the back tend to have less direct contact with the instructor and this is a great opportunity to interact with them.

5. Expand the concept of emergencies in your syllabus to include things other than medical issues

Let students know that they can talk with you about anything that is going on (e.g., mental health, family, financial, and work concerns) and that you will work with them to provide reasonable accommodations. Just knowing that you are open to hearing and helping students will make them feel more comfortable coming to you with the various issues they are experiencing. And you will get the opportunity to learn more about the unique struggles your students are dealing with

6. Check in with students during the term to see how they are doing

You can do this through quick check-ins at the beginning/end of class sessions and by administering a mid-course student feedback survey to better understand how your students are experiencing your course. You can also set up an ongoing Qualtrics survey or Padlet (just remember to check it regularly) or put a “feedback box” by the classroom door so that students can discreetly drop in a note as they leave.

7. Reach out to students who are struggling to let them know that you care and are willing to work with them

There may be something deeper going on with the student that you will only learn about if you talk with them. There are a variety of reasons why students don’t reach out for help when they are struggling, and while there are exceptions, most struggling students appreciate when their instructors take the initiative to reach out, show that they care, and offer support.

8. Invite students to your office hours

Office hours are a great way to have personalized interactions with students. However, students commonly state that they don’t go to office hours because they don’t have good questions and they don’t want to waste the instructor’s time. Make it clear that this time is set aside for them, they’re not bothering you, and they don’t need to have good questions to come.

9. Refer to students by name

Using students’ names helps them feel seen, valued, and included as part of the course, and there is evidence that it also helps them feel more comfortable reaching out to you for help.  There are a variety of strategies you can use to refer to students by name, even in a large-size course – some ideas can be found here.

10. Get an idea of students’ prior knowledge before covering a new course unit or topic

Some ways to do this are by asking students what they already know about the topic (perhaps within a think-pair-share structure) or getting students to ask their own questions about the topic. You can also ask students to respond to a relevant statement or question relating to the topic (e.g., Indicate whether you agree or disagree with the following statement and explain your answer: “You can get sick with the flu by getting a flu shot.”) .

11. Solicit information about how students are preparing for, completing, and responding to the work in your course

Wrapper and reflection assignments are great ways to do this, and a repository of reflection questions can be found here. You can use the information students share with you to better gauge the out-of-class workload associated with your course and understand students’ experiences with the coursework.

12. Be friendly and personable

This will help students feel that you are approachable. It may sound trite, but this can be as simple as smiling a little more during class and in your interactions with students, or asking students what they did over the weekend.

After reading this list, you might notice that you’re already doing many of these things. If so, great! Please don’t feel that you need to implement all of these strategies; instead, maybe choose one (or two) to try out and see if it works for you and your students.

Teaching is very contextual and personalized, and what works for one instructor (or even for one course section) may not work for others. The most important thing is that it works for you and your students.

Join the conversation by leaving a comment! Please share any other tips you have for getting to know your students, or any experiences you’ve had with using the tips listed above. We’d love to hear from you!

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