As an instructor, you likely have some idea of who your students are – their demographics, their fields of study, and their academic strengths. But how do you get to know students on a deeper level? With shifting course formats, a challenging past two years, and a more diverse student population than ever, this question is becoming ever more important to address.
For one thing, it’s been a whirlwind two years with the COVID-19 pandemic bringing change and uncertainty to academic life. Most courses are in person again, but some students have chosen to remain remote or hybrid – and the fallout of the past two years includes notably high levels of disengagement on campus. After experiencing so many disruptions to their learning, students reasonably need support to get back on track.
On top of that, the postsecondary student population is more diverse than ever, and your students are bringing different learning and studying skills, cultural backgrounds, academic goals, and expectations to your course. How do you get to know students who feel increasingly disconnected from academic life, and how do you connect with the diverse perspectives that they bring to the table – all while you are preparing and teaching hours worth of lessons for your course subject?
It can seem daunting to find a way to connect with students individually on top of your heavy academic workload – but tackling one or two manageable strategies can go a long way. In this guide, we’ll share a few approaches for connecting with your students more deeply so you can help them to engage with your course and feel more invested in their own academic success.
What is engagement?
You’ve probably heard a lot of buzz around the concept of “student engagement” in recent years. So how do you know when a student is engaged? The Glossary for Education Reform describes student engagement as “the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education.” Research shows that engaged students are more likely to be motivated to learn and persist. Getting to know your college students and incorporating their perspectives in the learning process is a powerful way to help them feel invested in their education. Here are a few strategies you can try.
Ways to Get To Know Your College Students
One simple way to set the tone for your course is to offer meaningful but no-stakes in-class icebreakers. Questions like “What do you want to learn in this course?”, “How are you feeling?”, or “What’s one thing you love about your major?” give students a chance to check in and opens up a channel for two-way communication in your course — while students are learning from you, you also want to hear from them. These get-to-know-you questions don’t need to be reserved for the first few days of the semester. Throughout the semester, ask students what they think in real-time to continue the conversation and encourage students to engage actively with the material.
A simple way to create this in-class feedback loop is through iClicker, which is available for free with Achieve courses and allows students to answer in-class polls through their smartphones. To get started, you can use iClicker’s sample icebreaker polling questions.
Continue to connect with students and how they’re doing with your course material by conducting quick temperature checks throughout the semester. The iClicker polling feature offers an option for “anonymous mode” in your question formats, which you can apply if you think students may feel more comfortable answering a question honestly without their name attached. You can use the short answer option for open-ended questions, and student responses will be merged into a word cloud so you and the students can see trends in class responses.
There is always the tried-and-true office hours approach. Office hours present a prime opportunity to get to know students’ perspectives and challenges. But as you know, it can be a struggle to get students to show up. Many students may not understand the purpose of office hours or may think that they need to have a specific question to meet with you. And since students have gotten used to the decreased in-person interaction of digital courses, they need even more encouragement to show up now. Emphasize the reason behind office hours in class, in your syllabus, and even in course materials or quizzes. You can create an inviting atmosphere in your course by letting students know that you want to talk with them. During your office hours, ask students about their goals and what they need to be successful, and encourage them to visit you any time throughout the semester – not just when they have a specific homework question. These one-on-one faculty-student interactions have proven to lead to higher achievement and increased engagement, and an engaged student is more motivated to learn.
Goal Setting and Reflection
Knowing students’ goals allows you to better address their learning needs. One way to get students thinking about their goals for the course is to start the discussion during class. Have students fill out inventories where they are prompted to reflect and answer a series of questions about their interests, goals, concerns, and inspirations. You may be surprised by what you find, and you can use this knowledge to highlight the connection between course concepts with students’ interests.
If you’re looking for a way to administer inventories, you can try the Goal-Setting and Reflection Surveys in Achieve. These pre-built surveys prompt students to set goals and reflect on their learning, and you can assign them throughout the semester to get a read on the interventions or support your students need as your course progresses. This small action can have a major impact on students’ participation. In our research, we’ve seen that courses that assign at least two of these surveys result in at least a 15% increase in assignment completion, which leads to an 8 percentile point increase in student grades in the course.
Start a Conversation
If you find students are still hesitant to come and speak with you even as you offer multiple ways to open the conversation, remember that you don’t always have to wait for your students to come to you. Reach out to individual students to start a conversation, ask questions, share your own goals for the course, and listen closely to their feedback. What goals emerge? What challenges may be holding them back? The spectrum of personal experiences and cultural backgrounds represented in your course means that your students may come to you with different expectations and learning styles. Initiating these one-on-one conversations with students can provide the context you need to create a learning environment where all of your students feel encouraged to engage.
Apply What You've Learned with Your Students
Once you’ve started getting to know your students on a deeper level, there are many different ways you can use that knowledge to engage students in your teaching. If you’re looking for ideas, try a few of these:
Connect your instruction to students’ interests. Look for patterns in what you hear from students in surveys, polling, and one-on-one conversations. Look for ways to connect your academic content to students’ goals and interests to help them engage.
Encourage students to apply their knowledge and experiences. Practice culturally responsive teaching by encouraging students to bring their existing knowledge and lived experiences into their course experience and assignments. Acknowledge that their unique perspective is an asset to learning and discussion in your course.
Incorporate different communication styles into your course. As you get to know your students, you will see a myriad of communication styles that students bring as a result of their differing personalities or cultural experiences, some of which are not naturally facilitated in the standard college course format. As you learn where your students are coming from, find opportunities to incorporate different approaches into your instruction so you can support all types of learning styles.
Incorporate interventions and supports based on student feedback. As you connect with students throughout the semester, use what you see from your poll and survey check-ins to address challenges and misconceptions as they arise.
All in all, every semester’s group of students has a different set of strengths, needs, interests, and perspectives, and it can be overwhelming to figure out how to get to know each new group in a progressively more digital university learning environment. As an educator, you have the expertise to forge these connections and the power to make a huge impact on your students’ academic careers. When you make ongoing efforts to connect, you prime your students to be more successful with your course material. Give your students many ways to connect and engage with the expertise that you bring, and your whole course will be enriched by the unique perspectives that interact with your teaching.