3 Simple Ways to Get to Know Your Students
If you want to break up your lectures and use more active, student-centered learning strategies in your courses, then an important part of planning is to create a learning environment where students feel welcomed. One way to do this is to create opportunities for you to get to know your students (and for them to get to know each other!).
Why is it important to get to know your students?
For some students, an active learning environment can be scary, overwhelming, or confusing. They may not understand their new roles and responsibilities, and they may not know what the expectations are.
That’s why it’s important to build trust. If students are afraid to ask questions, feel isolated, or fear of making mistakes, then they will not be engaged and the active learning environment you want to create will not work.
When you intentionally design opportunities for students to get to know each other, you’re helping build community in your course which helps build trust. Students feel like they are valued, they are being heard, and their ideas matter.
They are more willing to take risks, ask questions, and test their ideas because they know they are supported. They’re not just a number. They show up and come prepared because they know someone is paying attention to them.
When you get to know your students’ names and learn a little more about who they are, you can:
Build community and connection
Encourage engagement (they ask questions, take risks, and try)
Remind students that their ideas matter
Help students realize you value their ideas and contributions
Reduce fear and anxiety
Encourage students to make mistakes and learn from them
Create meaningful activities that align with their goals and interests
Integrate relevant humor and fun
Use examples and stories that connect to their lives
A learning environment is a complex space. It includes you, your students, and your subject matter, but it is also influenced by the physical, social, emotional, psychological, and environmental factors that work together to create an overall learning experience.
By taking the time to get to know your students, you are addressing many of these factors and making adjustments as needed to create a space where all students can learn.
3 simple ways to get to know your students:
1. Get creative with your sign-in sheet.
Fran Dulcich, Associate Professor in Human Services and Teacher Education at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, New York, recently shared this strategy with me. She explains:
“It’s a simple addition to the attendance sign-in sheet. I divide the paper in half; the left side is for student names and the right side is where they write a brief one or two-word answer to a question. I vary the questions, starting with something easy like “your favorite thing about fall” or a question about something they’ve read and relates to the day’s topic.
They have the option to pass but I’m finding that generally everyone participates. I often debrief on what they’ve said (“I see most people like the cold weather!”) I’m finding that I’m getting to know more about my students, their likes and dislikes, what they know and don’t know.”
Since implementing this idea, Fran says, “There are so many take-aways from this one little activity! Not only does it help me to get to know my students but taking attendance has become much more meaningful! They’re not just signing their name. They’re making a contribution to the class. Students are eager to sign in now!”
(Thanks for sharing this idea Fran! Such an easy way to get to know your students and create a welcoming environment with your students.)
2. Get creative with your name tags or table tents.
If you use name tags or table tents, ask students to draw a picture on their name tag that relates to something in their life. It could be an activity they enjoy, something they collect, or something related to their research. When I use this strategy in my courses and workshops, participants really enjoy the opportunity to hear others’ stories based on their name tag.
If the class is small, I give everyone time to share. If the class is large, I ask students to share within their small groups. This activity can also be adapted to encourage everyone in a group to find something they have in common (besides the fact that they’re all taking the same course) and then draw that image on a table tent for their whole group.
It’s amazing how much this simple activity prompts discussion and engagement. Tip! Always draw on your name tag or table tent too. It’s a great way to introduce yourself and students see you as a member of the community, not “just the teacher.”
You could also easily adapt this activity and integrate technology by having students record a quick video introduction while showing their name tag. Depending on the question you ask, you could also use their responses to sort students into groups.
3. Get creative with the first slide in your presentation.
Post a fun or interesting (non-threatening) question for students to think about and discuss as they arrive to class. While they are waiting for class to begin, they can reflect on the question or talk about it with their neighbor. Leave the question on the screen for the first two minutes of class and then take time to call on volunteers to respond if they want to.
- Brainstorming challenge: How many different ways can you [solve for X]? [Insert your own course content]
- Which part of the previous lecture was most confusing?
- What’s your favorite season? (A question like this can open the discussion about where students are from, what types of seasons they have, and what seasons they enjoy if they’ve lived in [this area] for a while. A good strategy for promoting diversity and inclusion.)
- What was the most confusing part of the article you read for today’s lecture? (Send this one ahead of time so students can prepare and then they can discuss it as they arrive to class.)
- Post two pictures side by side on the screen and ask students to choose their preference for A or B. Examples: Chocolate or vanilla. Peanut butter or jelly. Car or truck. Mountains or beach. Swimming or skiing. Sleeping or running. Laptop or phone. Music or movies. Dogs or cats. Indoors or outdoors. Online course or in-person course. See where the conversations go and what students choose.
- What has been the easiest concept to understand in this course so far? (This one could be used to encourage students to help each other. If someone in their group has mastered a difficult concept, they can teach it to their colleagues during a peer review session. It also helps build students’ confidence when they can talk about what they know versus what they don’t.
- Which social media platform do you use the most and why? (Or, maybe they’re not on social media which can prompt another part of the discussion.)
- What if you lost your phone for a day?
- Where are you from? (You could show a map of the world and start conversations about who lives the closest, farthest, etc.)
- Where do you like to study?
You can make these questions as general ask you’d like. You can mix in questions related to the course, and you can ask students to submit questions occasionally just to keep things interesting.
These are simple ways to get to know your students. You can adapt these ideas for a variety of learning environments including lecture halls, seminars, faculty development workshops, meetings, and other settings where you want to build community and maintain trust. (And have a little fun too!)