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Know Your Students

Far too often we begin planning a class with the content, pedagogy, technology and outcomes in mind -- without first researching the students.

February 12, 2020
 

When teaching, it seems logical to begin with the content or the pedagogy and then apply technologies to meet the outcomes we see, yet this misses the most important foundational step in the process. This is a step that needs to be formalized in the design and development process. It is to get to know the students who have enrolled in your program in the past or for whom you are designing the class. We cannot make assumptions. Over time the characteristics, knowledge and aspirations of enrolling students change. Especially today, with a range of career changers, adult learners and online learners from different regions, continents and cultures, we must be vigilant to monitor them to make sure we are meeting their needs. Some may be leaders in the field; others are novices.

How do we know where to begin the class if we don’t have an understanding of the experiences and prior background of the students? Harvard Business School provides a card stack to faculty members teaching online classes:

At Harvard Business School instructors have access to online class cards that provide a detailed profile of each student, including a photo, name pronunciation, educational background, work experience, demographic data, and extracurricular interests. Instructors study these profiles before the start of the term to develop a strong familiarity with their students and to consider the perspectives and expectations specific individuals are likely to bring to the course.

With each class meeting, the instructor can review and revise a case study or other content to best match the backgrounds and goals of the students. Thus, the class is much more dynamic, drawing on the expertise of individual students, challenging those who are advanced and filling in any deficiencies that others may have.

K-12 educators have done more in this area than some of us in higher ed. I really like the spreadsheet Jennifer Gonzalez features in her Cult of Pedagogy article “A Four-Part System for Getting to Know Your Students.” Our category columns will be different, but the concept is the same -- to find the salient information that will help the instructor understand and meet the needs and goals of the students.

Collecting data on each group of new students is useful if you have already started the term, or if you have taught the class a number of times previously. However, what if you are designing a new curriculum for a certificate or degree? In this case, we need to make a deep data dive into characteristics in related disciplines, labor statistics and a host of job sites including LinkedIn, Glassdoor, Indeed and many others that provide career data. We should begin with thorough research in this area.

Only after we understand the students and those who are already successful in the careers to which they aspire can we know what content they are likely to have mastered and what they have not. This may involve mining the collection of big data about our students from the student information system. The content expert/faculty member and the instructional designer can dig deeply into these data to set the foundation that will let them begin to shape the course content, the best pedagogical approach, the technologies that may best facilitate learning and the most appropriate assessments.

Designing and developing learning modules is not an assembly-line process. It is not linear in most cases. And, just as the process does not begin with assumptions, it should not end with a final project or final exam. More than a dozen years ago, I began promoting the “semester without end” approach. The concept is that the department or faculty member should continue to deliver content to the student even after the close of the semester.

I accomplished this with my seminar students in New and Emerging Technologies in the Electronic Media by having them subscribe to a curated reading list blog. We used it during the semester to identify appropriate articles for critique and ideas for further research. After the end of the term and now even years later, many of those students continue to read and subscribe to the email list that has evolved over the years. It provides a steady stream of selected news, trends and exemplars to inform and update the readers. I highly recommend this process of providing an ongoing “value add” to the students after they have left the class. This is helpful in many ways to the students and to the institution.

Do you collect and provide rich data about your students to the content experts/faculty and instructional designers as they begin to create new courses? Is this systematized as it is at Harvard Business School? Do you conduct an effective feedback loop from students/graduates to faculty/administrators in order to assure that content is relevant, timely and useful? Have you considered keeping the flow of information going after the end of the term or degree?

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