5 tips for getting to know your students

By Sarah Hansen, OCW Educator Project Manager

Several stacked pizza boxes

Professor Catherine Drennan uses pizza forums to connect with students in her large lecture class.

Students learn better when you see them as individuals and care about their success. But it can be challenging to get to know your students when you teach large lecture classes, or interact with a new group of students (or several!) every 15 weeks.  MIT faculty members face these challenges, too. We’ve mined their Instructor Insights to bring you 5 creative ways to get to know your students this semester.

  1. Start Your Lecture Sitting Down

Four yellow dots and the word Life on blue backgroundWith 300-400 students taking Introductory Biology each year, Professor Hazel Sive has ample experience getting to know students in the context of large classes. One of her strategies is to make use of the time before class starts to connect with students. In her Instructor Insights, she notes that “before class, I sometimes walk around the room and meet groups of students. Sometimes I start the lecture sitting down with a group of students and have them introduce themselves to the class at the beginning of the lecture, so that we have a bit of personal interaction going on.”

Still, she admits it can be difficult to get to know every student. “I worry,” she notes, “that if I know the names of some students, and I speak to them by name in class, other students might feel a bit excluded. I don’t like there to be a feeling of, ‘Oh, she didn’t even bother with me.’ … So I always try to make sure that when we’re speaking about our class, we talk about ourselves as a group and that the group is our measure of who we are. I want students to feel that there’s a greater whole, that we’re a community.”

  1. Ask Students to Place Themselves on the Talkativeness Spectrum

Several women breastfeeding babiesGender, Power, Leadership, and the Workplace is an undergraduate discussion-based course that equips students with an analytic framework to understand the roles that gender, race, and class play in defining and determining access to leadership and power in the U.S., especially in the context of the workplace. To get a feel for how to facilitate dialogue with the group of students who took the course in Spring 2014, the instructor, Dr. Mindy Fried, asked students “how they viewed themselves along a spectrum . . . of ‘talkativeness’ . . . (e.g., very talkative to very quiet).” In her Instructor Insights, she notes that “I also asked them what helped them to be more talkative in class. This information provided me with a baseline of understanding about how they viewed themselves.”

Fried goes on to say that, “I didn’t adjust my expectations based on this information. Instead, I provided opportunities for everyone to speak and be heard. I employed various methods to create a ‘safe’ environment where people of all backgrounds and with all opinions could articulate their thoughts and beliefs.”

  1. Launch a Survey

Close up of a model of a campus buildingTo get to know their students, Professor Eric Demaine and his co-instructor gave students a survey during the first lecture of Algorithmic Lower Bounds: Fun with Hardness Proofs. The survey helped them understand the prior knowledge students brought to the course, along with students’ specific interests that could shape the curriculum, which was still being actively developed. “There were a few topics that stood out as particularly interesting to the students,” comments Demaine in his Instructor Insights video. “And then one thing I was curious about was the use of fun examples. I was worried that students would not take the material seriously if I only used fun examples. But the feedback I got was that a lot of people wanted to see games and puzzles . . . So I took that as permission to use a lot more fun examples . . . I used the survey to really get to know the students. And to see where they were coming from, and to help aim the class in a direction that would help them get the most out of it.”

  1. Create Student Profiles

A landfill with birds circling above it.D-Lab: Waste is an introductory course that provides students with a multidisciplinary approach to managing waste in low- and middle-income countries, with strategies that diminish greenhouse gas emissions and provide enterprise opportunities for marginalized populations. With 10 students in the course, co-instructors Kate Mytty and Pedro Reynolds-Cuellar used one-on-one check-ins to get to know students: “During our first check-in session,” notes Mytty in her Instructor Insights, “we asked students questions, such as, What brought you to this class? Why are you interested in waste? What do you hope to get out of this class? How can we help you get the most out of your learning experience? and What kind of resources can we send you throughout the semester that will help you explore waste through your own interests? As the semester progressed, our check-in sessions also involved conversations about students’ individualized final projects.”

“This approach for getting to know students,” she continues, “grew out of my experience serving as a teaching assistant with a colleague who was a very engaging educator. We had 25 students in our class and he created a profile for each student. The profile included information about the student’s major, interest in the course, career path, and the kinds of resources the student would find helpful. Every few weeks we sent students new resources based on their profiles. We also documented the resources we sent them. This system allowed us to develop personalized relationships with students and to provide them with an experience that extended beyond the explicit learning goals of the course”

Mytty says, “I found that intentionally creating similar opportunities to get to know students in  D-Lab: Waste was valuable for Pedro and I because it allowed us to learn from students’ expertise. Doing so also helped students understand that we, as the instructors, were deeply invested in their education, which is something I think is often missing from students’ post-secondary learning experiences.”

  1. Use Pizza (but you already knew that)

Graphic depiction of equations and bondsPiazza digital forums are great, but don’t neglect the in-person analogy joys of pizza. Professor Catherine Drennan uses pizza forums to connect with students in Principles of Chemical Science, her large lecture course. “The idea,” she notes in her Instructor Insights video, “was that in a big class of 300 students, most of the students are not going to have an opportunity to really meet the professors. They may go to office hours, but even then, you can’t schedule office hours at a time when all 300 people in the class are available . . . But with the pizza forums, which are every few weeks during the semester, students get to know the faculty and vice versa.” She goes on the explain that the pizza forums help the staff to learn about how students are experiencing the course, and how they are experiencing MIT, in general. Drennan says, “I love to ask them, ‘What is one thing about MIT that is exactly what you expected and what’s one thing that really surprised you when you got here?’ . . . It’s always a lot of fun to get to know them.”

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Have another great strategy for getting to know students? Share with your colleagues by posting an idea in the comments. And, thanks!

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