Learn About Your Students

Students can feel nameless and faceless in college classrooms. Some students believe that this is what they want and others believe that this is “just how college is.”

No one truly wants to be nameless and faceless — and students in colleges and universities certainly do not. In a semester-long learning situation, students are far more engaged and thus, far more likely to learn if they have a sense that you — as their professor — care about them as people. You can begin connecting on the first day of class.

During that first class period, it is worth obtaining some information from your students to begin building a recognition of who they are. Here are ten suggestions to consider:

  1. The name each student wants to be called. Many of your students’ “legal” names are not the names they go by. Find out what your students like to be called (and how it is pronounced). Just asking the latter indicates that you intend to use their name and care enough to say it correctly.
  2. The student’s preferred pronoun(s). If you teach remotely, ask the students to indicate their pronouns along with their name on their Zoom screen so you can easily see it when you call on people. If you teach in person, ask the students to be patient with you if you inadvertently use an incorrect pronoun just as you ask students to be patient with you in learning everyone’s names and the correct pronunciation. [If you teach large lecture classes, of course, the overall expectations are differently anyway. Only a handful of profs learn 200–500 students’ names and pronouns. That is a mighty tall order!]
  3. The stated reason that they are taking your class. Prompt them and see what they write. It’s informative. You’re not judging their answers when you read them; you’re learning from their answers.
  4. Their goals (in life). Just let them know that you would be interested in whatever they are willing to share.
  5. What time commitment they are prepared to make for your class. You begin to learn a great deal about your students and what they have going on when you request this information from them.
  6. Their expectations for the course. Let your students know that they may have very general expectations, specific ones, expectations based on what others have said, or any combination (or essentially no expectations). You just want to know.
  7. Their expectations of you, as the professor. It’s fascinating to find out what they expect from their teachers. They don’t have to write volumes, just a few sentences.
  8. Their expectations of themselves, as learners. You’re looking for some insight into how they perceive themselves. Some students are spot-on and others have never really figured out that they need to have expectations of themselves as learners. You’re conveying a message to them just by asking.
  9. Their best email address. You will need to be able to contact your students via email as well as through the LMS you might use on your campus and thus need to know which email they prefer you to use (and that they check). And of course, be prepared for some “interesting” email addresses (that sometimes give more information about the student than maybe they had intended!)
  10. Their best phone number. The information you get from your university or college may not have your students’ current phone number and you need to be able to reach them in case of emergency cancellation of class, for example.
  11. The grade they expect to earn. Expect many students to indicate “A,” although not everyone will. Once you know, then you can help them understand what it takes to make their expectation a reality. [If you can explain the difference between an A student and a C student in behavioral terms, it goes a long way.]

You can provide your students with a sheet or a 5x7 card upon which they write their answers or you can ask them to fill out an online form to submit. Whatever you do, get some answers to these questions. It’s one step toward a great semester.

And as a college or university faculty member, you have many opportunities for success and failure. If you would like additional tips, tools, and techniques that you can use to support your successes, then you will want to access the The Compendium of Productivity Tips for Professors a step by step guide that will help you have a successful year and a compelling career as an academic.

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