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Assessing Student Needs in Your Course

By Heather N. Fedesco and Amanda J. Brockman, Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, and Emilie Hall, Vanderbilt University Medical Center

As researchers who study how positive relationships between students and their instructors and peers can benefit motivation and sense of belonging, we 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.

What to ask

Let’s explore this non-exhaustive list of items you may want to find out about your students in an online or face-to-face course.

The name your students want you to use for them during the course

  • Often the name that students use does not match the name listed on the roster. It is important to find out the appropriate name that the student wants to use in your class to affirm their identity. 
  • Note: It is also important to make sure that you know how to accurately pronounce students’ names and do not repeatedly ask students with names that you are unfamiliar with to pronounce their names for you. Incorrect pronunciation and repeated clarifications are common microaggressions experienced in the classroom which can impact students’ sense of belonging. Your information form might be a good place to learn pronunciation, but you could also ask all students to upload their name pronunciation alongside their introduction posts within the LMS where both you and other students can listen to their classmates’ name pronunciations. Vanderbilt also has a tool called Name Coach available to faculty and staff within Brightspace that can be used to learn pronunciations. 

Example question: “Sometimes the name that people would like to be called does not correspond with the name that is listed on the roster.  I would like for you to call me Amanda.  What name would you like for me to call you?”

 

The pronouns that students want you to use for them during the course

  • Even if your university provides pronouns alongside student enrollment, it is important to invite students to share this information with you in your specific class since the pronouns that individuals use can change over time and vary from context to context. Because of this, it is important to provide a way that students can let you, and ideally other students, know if the pronouns that they want you to use change over their time within your course. You can do this by allowing students to edit their information sheet or revise their pronouns in another location, within their LMS introduction, for example. 
  • You may also want to provide additional information for your students about pronouns before asking them about their pronouns to educate them about what pronouns are and why it is important to use an individual’s correct pronouns. You could do this by assigning an article in advance of asking them to fill out the information form. Or, you could also briefly describe pronouns and/or link an article within your information form. This resource describes in a clear and concise way why it is important to ask for and use correct pronouns in the classroom.

Example questions: 1) “What pronouns should I use for you during this course? Feel free to also include any other information you would like me to know about your pronouns (e.g., you have certain contexts you’d like me to use different pronouns, you’d rather not share your pronouns with the class, etc.).” 2) “Pronouns are how we refer to you in the third person. For example, I use the pronouns “she/her/hers.” So if you’re talking about me to someone else, you would say “she is my professor.” Other common pronouns are “they/them/theirs” or “he/him/his” – but other pronouns also exist. I am asking you this because it is important that we don’t assume people’s gender or the pronouns that they use just by looking at them or knowing their name. Using someone’s correct pronouns is a way to respect them, just as using a person’s name can be a way to respect them. For more information on this, you can visit https://www.mypronouns.org/” 

 

Accessibility needs of your students

  • A pre-course information sheet can be a great place to gather information about both formal (i.e. they have institutional accommodations granted) or other accessibility needs so that you can adapt your course, if needed, in the necessary ways to meet the needs of your students or assure students that their needs will be met.

Example question: “Is there anything that I can do to help make this course more accessible for you and/or help you learn?”

 

Where students are located

  • This information is helpful in determining the time zone that your students are in which can aid in grouping students, creating or modifying office hour times, and, generally, understanding any difficulties your students may face in attending class and completing assignments. 
  • It can also be helpful to know the city and state that your students are located in to understand any situational factors that may impact their participation in the course (e.g. being located in Texas during the freeze and blackout of February 2021).

Example question: “Where will you be located during the class? I ask this not to be nosy (I promise!) but, rather, so that I can get a sense of different time zones and any other situational factors that may impact your participation in this course.”

 

Challenges your students anticipate in completing the work required for this class

  • This information can give you advance insight into potential issues that may arise for those in your class and allow you to proactively mitigate challenges that your students may face. 
  • You could consider reaching out to those students that express potential challenges via email with solutions to particular issues (e.g. letting a student know that you will accept late work during a time that they anticipate being particularly challenging for them). 
  • You could also consider reaching out to students to simply thank them for sharing their challenge(s) with you and let them know that you will work with them to overcome what they share with you (including specific ways that you will work with them on this, if applicable). 

Example question: “Do you anticipate any challenges to completing the work required for this course? If so, what challenges do you anticipate?”

 

Where students access the internet (e.g. at home or in a public place)

  • Knowing where your students access the internet can help you understand the best ways to structure your course and reasons why students may participate in the ways that they do within synchronous sessions. For example, one of the authors of this article found out that a substantial proportion of her students did not have reliable internet at home in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic and primarily accessed the internet within public places. Because of this, she decided to adapt her course to a primarily-asynchronous format.  

Example question: “Where do you usually access the internet? A) at home, B) in a public place, C) other [allow students to specify]”

 

The reliability of the WiFi that your students generally access

  • Knowing the reliability of your students’ WiFi access can help you understand and plan for various aspects of the online teaching and learning experience. It will also help you understand why students participate in the ways that they do (e.g. having cameras off during Zoom meetings). 

Example question: “How reliable is the WiFi that you generally access?” You might use a likert scale (e.g. not at all reliable to very reliable) for the response. 

 

Level of familiarity or comfort with tools that you frequently use in your class

  • Knowing how familiar or comfortable students are with tools that you use in your class can help you understand if you need to give additional information and/or training to students for those tools that students will be expected to use. 

Example questions: “How comfortable are you using Brightspace?”; “How comfortable are you using Zoom?” You might use a likert scale (e.g. not at all comfortable to very comfortable) for the response.  

 

The goals that students have for your course/what they hope to get out of your course

  • Knowing the goals that your students have for your course can help you understand how to adapt your course to meet these goals or work with students individually to meet their particular goals.

Example question: “What are you most hoping to get out of this course? If you are just taking it for the credential, you can totally say that– no judgement!”

 

Existing content knowledge or skills that students bring to the class

  • Gauging what students already know can help you build off of their existing knowledge and/or affirm their prior related experiences in your class. 

Example question series (for an online pedagogy class): 1)Do you have experience teaching/TAing online classes or being a student in online classes? If so, briefly explain. 2) Please tell me about any other teaching experience below. You can be as brief or as detailed as you would like.”

Example question (for a sociology course): “Have you taken sociology courses before here at Vandy or elsewhere? If so, which?”

 

Questions and concerns students have about the syllabus and/or major course projects

  • Assigning this information form immediately after or alongside an assignment to thoroughly read through the syllabus and major project descriptions can give students the opportunity to express concerns, confusion, or apprehension they might have in relation to the course material as well as give you the opportunity to address these issues and/or make changes to your syllabus early in your course. 

Example questions: 1) “Do you have any questions about the syllabus, major projects, or course in general? 2) Is there anything in the syllabus or major projects that you disagree with, think should change, or think should be added?”

 

Anything else the student thinks you should know

  • Providing a free-form question that gives students the opportunity to share anything else that may not fit elsewhere in the form allows them to express any additional needs, issues, or concerns. You may find that most students respond to this question with “no” or “n/a,” but you may also uncover important information. 

Example question: “Is there anything else you think I should know?”

 

Where to Set up your Survey Form

Brightspace or Another Secure LMS

One option for gathering the information that you need about students is through the survey or quiz function within Brightspace or another secure LMS. This option has the benefits over other options of 1) providing a secure location for students to express accessibility needs and 2) seamlessly incorporating into an existing module, if using an LMS to create your online course. An option that you may consider is enabling students to be able to submit their survey or quiz multiple times if any responses in the information form need updates. 

Google Forms

Google Forms is one of the simplest options for setting up your information form for students to fill out. However, it may not be a fully-secure location for sharing accessibility needs. 

Microsoft Forms

Microsoft Forms is another option for setting up a form to gather student information. This tool is available through Microsoft 365, which Vanderbilt University staff and faculty can access using their VUnetID and password. The functionality of Microsoft Forms is similar to Google Forms, however, this is a more secure option as you are required to use the Vanderbilt single sign on to access the tool. For more information about creating a form with this tool, visit this information page.

Examples of Student Information Forms

The following are sample student information forms from various disciplines that may be helpful resources as you develop your own. While I list the disciplines, the majority of the questions in these various forms are not discipline specific. 

Human and Organizational Development

Heather Fedesco’s information form can be used for both online and face-to-face courses. Here is a note from Heather about her form:

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.

Sociology

This information form was developed by Amanda Brockman for an online summer social problems course in the Department of Sociology at Vanderbilt. 

Nursing

Abby Parish combines various questions into a single prompt that she provides as the last item on a syllabus quiz within Brightspace that she implements for her nursing students at Vanderbilt. Here is the item she uses: 

“I’d like to close the quiz with a space for you to tell me more about yourself. You may share as much or as little as you like – everyone will get full credit for this question. I would be particularly interested in hearing about any barriers that you might anticipate to being able to do your best work this semester (e.g., are you a caretaker for adult(s)/child(ren), are you working, any other pertinent obligations, any medical concerns, etc). Knowing more about the unique obstacles you face could assist me in supporting you across the semester. I would also love to hear about anything else you would like to share – preferred name(s), pronouns, where you will reside while learning (including time zone as applicable), any technology/WiFi concerns you might have, or anything else you’d like to share.”

Leadership and Organizational Performance

This information form was developed by Corbette Doyle for a group-based hybrid class within the Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University. 

Engineering

This information form was developed by Danya Glabau, New York University, Tandon School of Engineering, specifically for NYU’s shift to online learning due to COVID-19. 

Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies

This information form was developed as a survey for the transition to online classes by Lauren Cagle at the University of Kentucky. 

Any Online Class

This information form was developed by Michelle Pacansky-Brock, an expert in humanizing online learning and faculty developer, for any online class. 

 

 

 

1.Download or bookmark any of the student information form examples that you think might be useful to you in the future.

 

 

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?

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