Learning About Our Students (2022)

Sharon Raz

The following faculty reflections were gathered during a LWTech all-faculty meeting in the In-Service week of Fall 2022. The main focus of discussion was the five dimensions of diversity and social justice in the class (Bell et al. 2016. Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, pg. 56):

  • Me, as an educator: What are my social identities and positionality in the classroom?
  • My students: What are their social identities, backgrounds, abilities, and needs?
  • The curriculum: What do I teach?
  • My teaching methods: How do I teach it?
  • The classroom climate and the group dynamics
Faculty were asked to reflect on their positionality in the classrooms and then were invited to share their reflections in a gallery walk that focused on getting to know our students. Here is the list of the faculty reflections:

What can we gain from learning about our students?

Their trust.

Their willingness to share.

The ability to contextualize topics for them.

Building a classroom community.

Perspectives and experiences other than our own.

Students bring their own knowledge and experiences that can enrich all of our learning and is validating and empowering for the student as well.

We can find common ground.

We can open our eyes to new ideas.

Students often come with knowledge of the topic. Others can learn from them too.

I ask my students often how their learning experience is going. From their insights I learn how I can improve and I learn new ideas for teaching.

We can meet them where they are.

They feel a sense of belonging.

Personal connection.

Sawubona – I see you.

By learning about our students we are also learning about our community and who is around us.

Gives you a chance to expand approaches to teaching different people. This can counter boredom.

We can enrich our own lives by learning about our students. We can draw on student experiences when designing assignments such as writing prompts.

Ability to share and learn from different experiences.

Not everything is what it seems.

How did we get here and why? Why are they here and how?

Understand a bit more about the life experiences that might influence their interactions and learning in class.

Challenge our preconceived notions and biases.

Learning about our students enriches the entire class. We become greater than the sum our parts. Synergy.

We get an environment where students are ready to learn.

Connection and focus more on similarities than differences.

We can gain perspective from the students’ vastly different backgrounds and experiences. New perspectives allow us to better relate to students. Being able to relate allows us to present information to them in more meaningful ways.

What are some ways we can learn more about our students?

Talk to the text (golden lines).

Discussion boards.

I am / identities activity in Week 1.

Spend the first day on introductions.

Icebreakers (introductions including backgrounds and hobbies).

Engage in quick, fun, open-ended questions at the start of class. We learn a lot about someone when we are learning about their favorite dessert or animal. Makes for fun conversation.

Discussion board introduction with a video or writing.

Using Mentimeter.

Small groups, making sure all students have the opportunity to share.

I write them a letter introducing myself and share a favorite poem. Then I ask them to write back to me sharing about themselves, and telling me their thoughts about the poem.

Cohort model. Develop relationships with students that last years rather than 10 weeks.

I still do a handwritten paper survey of new students. Questions range from languages you speak to preferred pronouns, to challenges you will have with this class. It is private, so it lets me know a lot from the beginning. I even have a drawing portion, a self portrait. It can be literal or metaphorical.

Show and tell opportunities.

In writing classes we can assign narrative essays that provide opportunities for students to share their experiences.

As a class, we all introduce ourselves, identify the program we are in, share our personal history with the subject of the class (i.e. math), and share something significant about our lives.

Show them you are relatable and in many ways like them.

Meetings with each student.

Put students in groups of three and have them create a Venn diagram of things that are unique to them and things they have in common with others.

In-class brief introductions on Day 1 and Day 1 survey. I give them with optional questions such as “Describe a past experience with math that was positive or negative for you.”

On the first day I have students write on an index card their name and pronouns, career aspirations or vocational aspirations, what they might find interesting about the course, and something they wish to share about themselves. I also do this exercise and we share out.

Talk to students as they walk in the door/enter Teams.

Office hours, a Four Connections talk, and being early.

Weekly journals about their past, what they’re going through, and their future goals and dreams are a good way.

Conferencing and class discussions focused on their interests.

Put students in groups with people they like. Yes, they’ll be chatty, but they will also open up more.

Question of the Day. Select questions from a variety of topics to allow students to share many different aspects of themselves.

I meet every student for a brief “interview” during the first two weeks, getting to know them and the life they’re living now. Then they check in every week via Canvas to tell me how they’re doing, and I always reply with comments based on what I learned at that first meeting.

Warm-up questions at the beginning of class.

Four Connections! Meeting one on one with students, as well as regular check-ins.

Query students on their goals and current industry trends.

Student narratives, storytelling, and journals.

Using discussion forums in Canvas.

Getting to know you activity. Ask students what their name means. Even for students who don’t know the meaning of their name, they can talk about themselves.

In-class presentations and group assignments by and for students helps to generate a community of learners.

Weekly reflections. If they choose to, they share about their personal lives, opening up about what is going well and what is not.

Student introductions posted to Canvas. Student reflections (if comfortable) posted to Canvas.

Listen and share.

Create a comfortable learning environment where the students feel they are able to share freely.

Discussion board asking students why they are here. It’s an assignment with commenting. Done the first day. Participation is pass/fail.

How can we contextualize our classes to our students’ interests, needs, and prior knowledge?

Ask them to describe backgrounds and future goals. What they are and why they are.

Ask about interests.

Use real-world examples and activities.

Through goal-setting activities.

Taking the time to ask for student feedback, and finding ways to incorporate it quickly.

Ask why they came to the program.

Ask students to do PowerPoint presentations on their research topics.

Allow them to choose their own research topics so they choose ones that interest them.

Ask for feedback.

Let them choose their projects, within parameters.

By learning about our students, we can focus our subject material to different programs and address emotional issues that may be problematic (i.e. math anxiety).

Provide a choice on assignments that mirror their interests.

We can leave some space in the syllabus in order to be able to adapt as we learn more about our students’ needs.

Invite students to create avatars that represent their heritage and background.

Administer surveys of their interests at the beginning of the quarter and work to match their interests and activities, writing topics and other assignments.

Small group discussions that provide time and space for sharing and applying the course content.

Give students options of topics to delve more deeply into assignments.

Get to know their interests in the subject matter.

Individual reflection assignments.

Collaborative work greatly brings prior knowledge on the table; develop assignments contextualized to interests and needs; the “you decide activity” is professor-student-informed, which leads to partnership.

Encourage students to personalize the content taught.

If they have a clinical experience with pool therapy (one of our topics in the PTA program), for example, I invite them to present a picture of a specific therapy session with the class.

Have students present examples of their current interests and passions.

When I know some students are knowledgeable or interest in something that the course material is applicable to, I’ll engage with them to see if they have insights to share or experience with that concept in the domain we are discussing.

I flip the classroom so that we are doing all higher level Blooms exercises in person. Then we relate that to the text they have read already.

Actively look for clues and cues in student participation and feedback and adjust accordingly.

Students can select materials that interest them to fulfill assignment requirements.

Show them you are listening to what they share with you by referencing it. Also, provide as much freedom as possible in assignments for exploring issues of interest to them that they then draw back to the course material. When they are given a choice of topics, they become more invested in the class and more open to sharing of themselves.

I let students tell me during the first week what they most hope to gain from our learning and then work to ensure that I help them get it! It helps to tell them that is what I’m all about, and I’ll do my best to make it happen.

Use their situations in examples instead of examples in the book.

Allow options for students to select from a variety of case study scenarios when doing application type assignments.

Create lessons that encourage them to share.

Tell them what I did when I was their age (drawing and doodling made me want to be in a creative career). Do my students do the same when they were in high school.

I do a survey of their experiences and interests and what they want to learn in the class during the first session. Then I try to structure some of the lessons to the students interests and will try to get them to share more about their experience with the class, if they’re comfortable with it.

Ask them to help design activities.

Create small groups so that students do not always choose whom they know or their friends. Instead, they work with those who may be different from themselves.

Ask what works best for them and adjust accordingly, guide them to different resources (eLearning, Trio, etc.), include them as content experts based on previous knowledge and experience.


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Diversity and Social Justice – Faculty Guide (2022 Edition) Copyright © 2021 by Sharon Raz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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