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Assessing Student Needs in Your Online Course

By Heather N. Fedesco, Assistant Director, Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching

As a researcher who studies how positive relationships between students and their instructors and peers can benefit motivation, I often encourage faculty to get to know their students better. In fact, doing so can create a more inclusive learning environment because as the Center for Teaching and Learning at UNC Chapel Hill suggests, the more you know about your students, the better able you are to see your students as “individuals rather than as members of particular groups” (p. 17).

Creating inclusive and accessible learning environments is important for all teaching contexts, and this is especially true for online courses, which is evidenced in some of the principles and frameworks that guide online course development. Knowing more about our students and their accessibility needs in an online learning environment can also help inform the design choices we need to make.

Perhaps the best way to learn more about our students as individuals and to simultaneously identify any accessibility needs is to solicit this information early on with a student information sheet or pre-survey. Ideally, you would send this survey to your students before the semester begins or during the first week of class. Doing so early on sends the message that you care about your students and gives you time to make any adjustments to the course based on their responses.

The following is a sample survey that you can add additional questions to or modify current questions to suit your particular course. In addition, this survey can be used for both online and face-to-face courses.

You’ll notice in the directions that I provide a rationale for why I am asking my students these questions: so that I can get to know them better and thus be a more effective teacher. You’ll also notice that I tell students they can skip questions that they do not feel comfortable answering. Finally, in order to build trust, and to allow my students to get to know me better, I fill out the same survey and share it with my students. After all, relationship building is a two-way street. Sharing your answers to this survey provides the added value of disclosing any accessibility needs you might have as the instructor (if you are comfortable doing so). In turn, students may be more forthcoming in opening up about their needs, and this provides a good opportunity for you to communicate any needs you might have that will help you better lead your online course.



1.Download and save the Student Information Survey.



2. Reflect on the following questions:

How can I edit this survey to be more appropriate for my own context? What else do I need to know in order to get to know my students?

Which survey tool will I use? Perhaps one built in to your course management system?

Continue to Communicating with Students