Get to Know Your Students Early

This summer I wrote about seeing your classes as an entrepreneur thinks about his or her target market.  This can be a very powerful tool, especially if it begins during the first week of classes.  With careful thought, and some time, an early exercise can help teachers get to know and foster an open relationship with students.

Last year one of my mentors in the History department gave me a fantastic personal learning questionnaire for each student.  She explained that she gave it to them on the first day of class and created a separate folder to keep it and other documents related to that student.  I am sure that many teachers do something similar.  I ended up using it and found it to be incredibly powerful, but not necessarily in and of itself.  Upon receipt of each form, I sat down and emailed each student to address his or her concerns, hopes, and even outside interests.  This takes a tremendous amount of time, but it helped me learn a lot about the students in my class — my target market.  A sample response would read something like this: “Dear Student, thank you for taking the time to fill out the personal learning questionnaire.  It’s great to hear that you’ve identified yourself as a visual learner.  I intend to provide a variety of resources that will play to this strength.  If you ever create any visuals that you want to share or have any ideas for visuals that the class could create, let me know.  I understand that note taking is something many students do not feel comfortable with.  I never lecture for entire periods, but we do enough note taking to help you become more comfortable with the skill as you prepare for college.  If you find yourself struggling with this, please come see me.  Kudos for making the soccer team this year.  I used to coach soccer and would love to hear from you how the team is doing.”

Not only does this exercise help me learn more about my students, but just as important, it sends a message that student feedback is personally reviewed.  This helped develop a culture of open communication in my classroom that lasted the entire year.  I give class evaluations quarterly and do a few other student reflections.  With the understanding that these are reviewed and counseled on the individual level, I received (in my mind) much more authentic feedback.

Of course I had to do my best to act on the feedback as well.  If a large portion of the class self-reports as visual learners (as the student above), I create (or provide the resources for them to create) tools that support this form of learning.  If I have someone who self-reports as a strong group leader, I give them said opportunities to shine.

Good teachers, like good entrepreneurs learn as much as they can about their target market.  They frequently request feedback and take a genuine interest in improving (or altering) their course to best maximize student learning.

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