How Well Do You Know Your Students?
Using Surveys to Adapt Your Teaching
Do you know your students? I am not asking if you know their names or their majors. I am talking about their lives—their socioeconomic backgrounds, jobs, responsibilities. In the spring of 2020, I began doing an anonymous background survey to get a better sense of their lives outside my classroom. With more information about them and their needs, I have been able to adjust my teaching to help them to learn and to succeed academically.
Of the students I teach at South Texas College (STC), over 60 percent are the first in their families to attend college, and most receive financial aid. The student body is over 95 percent Hispanic. The college has a large dual-enrollment program as well, partnering with 21 school districts to offer courses at 70 high schools. STC students are primarily from Hidalgo and Starr counties located along the United States–Mexico border. The US Census estimated poverty rate for Hidalgo County is 27 percent and for Starr County is 32 percent. (In comparison, the US poverty rate broadly is just 10 percent.)
Within the scholarship of teaching and learning, one key concept is understanding a bottleneck—the point in the teaching process when a significant number of students are having difficulty grasping content or skills. However, bottlenecks also exist outside the cognitive struggles related to teaching and learning. They exist in students’ lives, and we can learn a little about those potential bottlenecks using a basic background survey.
Besides questions on gender identity, how many hours they have completed toward their degree, and their major, I ask about three specific issues that relate to potential bottlenecks in students’ lives:
- Do you have children? How many?
- Describe what kind of childcare or eldercare you have and if you need help with this care.
- How do you access the internet to complete your coursework? To complete and submit schoolwork, do you use home wifi, a cell phone, free wifi hotspots (such as libraries, restaurants, or South Texas College)? Please indicate which you use the most and if you use more than one way to access wifi to do schoolwork.
In the fall of 2020, I added two questions related to the pandemic:
- How has COVID-19 affected you and your family? What services might you need to help your and your family’s current situation?
From the survey, I get a general sense of student needs and can proactively connect them to school resources. In the past, this has included tutoring help, mental health services, scholarship opportunities, and maps of wifi hotspots.
Because of the community I serve, I embrace a pedagogy that avoids continuing systemic inequality that punishes students who work part time or full time and take care of children or their parents. One essential change I made to my classroom practice is in assessments. Instead of giving timed exams, students write long essays. As a result, more students are academically successful.
We can learn a little about potential bottlenecks in students’ lives using a basic background survey.
Student needs also led me to change my policy on late work. These students turn in late work not out of laziness or being undisciplined. They turn in late work because they are always working. So instead of giving firm deadlines and penalizing students for late submissions, I accept late work at full-credit consideration. I do not include this aspect of my teaching within the syllabus. Instead, when students begin missing deadlines or when they ask for extra time to turn in work, I announce this policy to the class. I still encourage students to turn in their work on time, to avoid assignments accumulating in a way that would make it difficult to finish the work by the end of the semester. If a student cannot complete the course on time, then I allow them to continue turning in work after the final grade due date or offer them an incomplete for the course, depending on the amount of work remaining.
The most common response I hear from my colleagues who do not accept late work is that students need to learn the “soft” skill of turning work in on time. They need to become responsible adults. But my students are profoundly responsible. Many of them are already raising children, employed, and attending college simultaneously. For many of my dual-enrollment students, part-time jobs help supplement their family’s income. During the pandemic, I have had dual-enrollment students who were the only ones working in their families.
Another critique of accepting late work is that it increases the teacher’s workload. The reality is the amount of time spent on grading per student does not change—I merely adjust when it occurs, with a heavier grading load at the end of the semester than at the beginning. Faculty workloads are heavy, too, and I know some faculty eager for the respite after finalizing grades turn on automatic messages about not being available until the next term. But such behavior increases the chance that, over years, many of their students fail, when a simple extension might have set them up for success.
My students turn in late work because they are always working.
From students’ responses, I know that this accommodation has helped immensely. For example, one student reached out via our class messaging app. Her laptop had recently died, and she was limited to doing schoolwork at the library or using her husband’s computer. When she was ready to submit her exam, she thanked me for my understanding. She wrote, “It’s very stress relieving that you accept all late work that way. I don’t plan to just submit late all the time, but I do appreciate that because these issues came up you are accepting it.” For economically disadvantaged students like those at STC, replacing a laptop could lead to a loss of opportunity for a better future for themselves and their families. Accepting late work is just one way I can help them to succeed.
History teaches us to be empathetic in understanding people’s lives in the past, but we should extend that skill set to our students. There are more bottlenecks to students’ success then struggling to find a working laptop with adequate wifi; there are issues related to their work lives and taking care of families. So use that empathy, get to know your students, and help break down the systems of inequality that exist in higher education.
Trinidad Gonzales is a Mexican American studies and history instructor at South Texas College. He served on the AHA’s Teaching Division from 2014 to 2017. He tweets @GonzalesT956.
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