Where to Begin?

Getting to Know Our Students

Happy New Year and welcome back! We hope you had a wonderful break.

As we launch a new semester, we tend to have competing priorities; to build a strong foundation for learning, the most important thing we can do is get to know our new students. Of course we need to learn as much as we can about their prior knowledge, but we can best help them learn if we also get to know them as human beings. Safety and social acceptance are prerequisites for learning, since they free up cognitive resources for critical and creative thinking. Humans are social animals, and in order to take intellectual risks, students need a sense of community and security; building that kind of rapport starts with getting to know our students—and helping them get to know each other.

Learning students’ names is a great first step. They appreciate it more than we may realize, and they often say so in SPCI results and Thank-a-Professor messages. You can get a printable photo roster through myFSU as a reference, and NameCoach, a tool available in Canvas, can help you learn how to pronounce students’ names correctly.

The first day of class should include an activity focused on establishing relationships. Even in a large class, students can introduce themselves to a small group of peers, and you can introduce yourself and glean a good bit about your students with a survey—whether before class through Qualtrics or SurveyMonkey, or in class with clickers or PollEverywhere. Your questions can be both humanizing and relevant to the learning they’ll be doing. You might want to know what previous courses your students have most enjoyed, some of their personal or professional goals, which languages they speak, or countless other details that will shape their experience in your class. We’ve turned the survey questions suggested in the book What Inclusive Instructors Do into an MS Form you can use.

If you have manageable numbers, in-class writing is also extremely useful, as are introductory cards. Students could even make brief podcasts or introductory videos to post to Canvas. An exercise that asks them to identify what they’re good at, or feel confident doing—and how they got that way—can be a great way to learn about your students while helping them focus on their strengths. Discovering what excites them will lend you powerful tools for keeping them motivated. Asking students to share a funny experience can get them laughing, which promotes trust and community.

Arriving early to your classroom to chat with students, or staying late when you can, is a perennial strategy for finding out what they’re thinking, and helps them see that you’re interested in them. If you can invest more time, having lunch with small groups of students will provide remarkable opportunities for connecting. Even if you’re not as intrepid as KSU anthropologist Michael Wesch, who decided to become a participant-observer in his students’ lives, and you don’t have the time to shadow a student, you can show your genuine curiosity and care.

Joshua Aronson, a social psychologist at NYU, argues that curiosity—simple human curiosity about each other’s individual lives and experiences—is one of the most important antidotes to the stereotypical thinking that often divides us. Certainly, as Wesch discovered, we may find that our assumptions about students’ abilities and motivations are sometimes mistaken. Getting to know our students and watching them grow are some of the great pleasures of teaching, too.

Welcome back! Best wishes for a semester full of discovery.