How Do We Know the Needs of the Students?

Sticky notes of question marks on different colored paper

I was recently presenting a workshop on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and I was discussing learner variability, interests, and preferences as a key to providing meaningful learning opportunities and incorporating choices and options into course design. One of the faculty members in the workshop asked a great question, “How do we know the needs of the students?” My answer is twofold:

Firstly, many assumptions about students are harmful, so why not start making some assumptions that are helpful? For instance, many assume that all students have had appropriate training in secondary school to prepare them for the expectations of our college level courses. We assume that students should be able to finish tests in the allotted time that we think is reasonable. We assume that they know how to advocate for themselves.

If you are reading this and thinking, “I don’t make these assumptions,” I suggest you look at your courses and the way they are designed. The design of your course will indicate your assumptions about students and may reflect some implicit assumptions of which you are not fully aware. In fact, have someone else look at your course and you may get some valuable perspective.

We can see that these harmful assumptions are being made when we don’t vary the level of challenge for our courses or assignments; when we don’t provide options for how students demonstrate their learning; when we assign timed tests as the only option for the assessment of learning, just to name a few. We should use a combination of our experience, available data, and current research to make helpful assumptions that can have positive effects.

So, what do we know? We know that more students with disabilities are participating in higher education than ever before. We know more first generation students are attending. We know lack of internet access affects online learning experiences. We can assume that not all students have the same level of preparedness; that not all students learn the same way; that not all students have the same interests and that they prefer and do better when they are provided choices for how they demonstrate their learning. In fact, these can be lead indicators of student success which should not be ignored.

So if you don’t know who the students in your class will be, make some assumptions based on what you do know, and then prepare as best you can to meet their needs. You may not know the circumstances for each new student enrolling in your class next semester, but find out what you can. This is where you can take your initial assumptions about variability and situational factors and expand it to a more concrete understanding before you even meet your students.

Many institutions engage in their own institutional research that can provide good insights, so why not take a look? Connect with your admissions and enrollment department to find out more about the students they are marketing to, and the students that are applying and being accepted. For administrators and department leaders who have this data, you should share it. Institutional research and enrollment data isn’t just something to be collected and posted on the website, or looked at by a committee of administrators. This type of information should be shared with your faculty development department and, most importantly, with your faculty. Divisions and departments should not be operating in silos but should be transparent across campus to better serve all stakeholders.

General information about the students, their demographics, and their previous educational experiences all help faculty to understand the characteristics of the learners, which should be considered when designing and redesigning their courses. This will also help institutions to better understand ways to support students and faculty.

The second and more simple way to answer the question, “How do we know the needs of the students?” is to ask them. It is common practice in K-12 settings for students to complete an About me assignment or a Back-to-school survey at the start of the academic year. It would be hard to find a K-12 teacher that would even think about teaching a group of students for whom they had not yet developed an understanding of and built a rapport with. Obviously, K-12 and college are different, but does this have to be one of the differences? Shouldn’t we be asking our students about themselves?

There are countless possibilities for how this can be done. Students can be given a range of options on the first day of class (or even earlier through email, the LMS, the course description, or general college expectations) for how they want to provide information about their interests, preferences, past experiences, goals, etc. The options can include written forms, videos, audio, surveys, interviews, artwork, infographics, the list could go on and is limited only by the creativity of the faculty and students.

Understanding learner characteristics and situational factors is a key to designing courses for significant learning, so it should be a prerequisite for course design (Fink, 2013). How to understand the learner characteristics and situational factors is not difficult. The first step is to assume variability–whether you know exactly what that entails or not–then use the information that is available to determine or predict who the students in your class will be and what their needs will be. Once they are enrolled, ask them!

Alana Sejdic is the director of Academic and Student Disability Services at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Conn. She earned her MEd from Post University and is currently enrolled in the EdD program at the University of Bridgeport.

Fink, L. D., & Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences : An integrated approach to designing college courses. ProQuest Ebook Central