Know Your Students

Ways to get to know your students and challenges they may face with inclusion.

Identity, ethnicity, and culture should be considered in your course. Therefore, it is generally worth considering who the students enrolling in higher education are at UW-Madison, your school/college/department, and your courses. We will share ideas on how to do that in an upcoming activity. First, we will start with who are UW-Madison students.

“Even though some of us might wish to conceptualize our classrooms as culturally neutral or might choose to ignore the cultural dimensions, students cannot check their sociocultural identities at the door, nor can they instantly transcend their current level of development… Therefore, it is important that the pedagogical strategies we employ in the classroom reflect an understanding of social identity development so that we can anticipate the tensions that might occur in the classroom and be proactive about them” (p. 169-170)

Reference: Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., & Lovett, M.C. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Read the profiles and note what challenges these students may face with inclusion in your course.

In this podcast episode (26:56 minutes), Dr. Julie Martin discusses social capital's role in student success, retention, and persistence for first-generation and continuing-generation students in undergraduate engineering.

Get to Know Your Students

We also need to understand our students' social identities and how we can help foster a sense of belonging, especially for marginalized students. Authors Addy, Mitchell, and SoRelle (2021), co-authors of What Inclusive Instructors Do, explain: “Inclusive Instructors seek to understand which attributes their learners bring with them to their course so that they can leverage them to design an inclusive learning environment” (p. 26).


Campus Climate Survey

The National Healthy Minds Study (HMS), administered by the University of Michigan, provides a detailed picture of mental health, bystander intervention, and campus climate in college or graduate student populations in 36 institutions across the United States. More than six thousand students participated in the survey for UW–Madison during Spring 2019.

What would students like instructors to know?

In analyzing the qualitative findings from the climate survey, key findings include:

  • Students expressed gratitude for instructors who were empathetic, flexible, and understanding of different communication types.
  • Students reported that they felt more supported in their learning when instructors were available and offered extended office hours.
  • Students stressed the importance of effective communication and sending out information as early as possible.
  • Students requested more understanding and empathy toward students who deal with mental health.

Source: Campus 2021 Climate Survey

Demographic Data Sources

Using surveys to get to know students

You can use surveys or ask students to write narratives about their motivations: what drew them to the course and what they already know about the course content. Or find out about students’ interests and goals for the future. We can incorporate such surveys throughout the semester to check in with students about their concerns about the course, college experience, and life beyond college.

You might also consider asking students to provide any other information that would be helpful for their learning or that they think would be important for you to know. In turn, they might share that they live off campus, work full-time, or have childcare arrangements to manage while attending college. Approach requesting student information from a place of genuine interest rather than “information gathering,” which can often be off-putting for students.

Ask questions that will garner information that you can use or plan to use in how you shape the course or how you will interact with your students. Consider whether sensitive questions, such as students’ racial, ethnic, or sexual identities, are relevant questions for you to ask and how you’ll use the information you gather to benefit your students. If you need to collect information that might be perceived as sensitive, be sure to do so in a manner that protects students’ confidentiality and gives them the option to skip questions about the information they are not comfortable sharing.

One example of a survey that was developed specifically to gather information to help instructors teach inclusively is the “Who’s in Class” form developed by Tracie Addy, one of the authors of What Inclusive Instructors Do, Watch the video for how this survey freely available to all instructors, can help you teach inclusively.

Read more about the “Who’s in Class Survey”


  • Addy, T. M., Dube, D., Mitchell, K. A., & SoRelle, M. (2021). What inclusive instructors do: Principles and practices for excellence in college teaching. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Addy, T. M., Mitchell, K. A., & Dube, D. (2021). A Tool to Advance Inclusive Teaching Efforts: The “Who’s in Class?” Form. Journal of microbiology & biology education, 22(3), e00183-21.

Inclusive office (student) hours

Another way to get to know students is through office hours. For many students, visiting their instructors’ office can be intimidating; many don’t know why they should come to office hours, or what is an appropriate use.

Tips to Make Office (Student) Hours More Welcoming

In an online learning environment, where faculty and students can’t speak in person, virtual office hours are a great way for teachers to stay connected with students, get to know them, and help them succeed. Following are a few suggestions:

  • You might also refer to your office hours as “student hours” since some students believe that “office hours” are the time instructors set aside to work in their offices and should not be disturbed. By referring to the time as “student hours,” you send a clear message that this time is for them.
  • If you encourage students to come to mandatory, group, or online office hours, they are more likely to use them over the semester and will feel more comfortable asking for the help they need to succeed. This strategy can help you get to know your students, but it also allows them to get to know you, which can help you build meaningful relationships with them.
  • Remove barriers to students meeting with you by offering a variety of times (time of day and length of meeting), formats (e.g., video conference, phone call, text message, email), and structures (e.g., one-on-one and in small groups). Promote your office hours in a way that is engaging and encouraging.
  • Continually invite students to your office hours throughout the semester.

Try Different Formats

Office or student hours can be more inclusive by adding structure and being intentional with your design. Show an example of office hours that account for different formats and locations at different times of the semester on this page. All these help remove some of the barriers to participation and, hopefully, broaden student engagement. A sample graphic showing office hours for Dr. Vigi Sathy, co-author of Inclusive teaching: Strategies for promoting equity in the college classroom, is pictured on the right. The photo is taken from her website.

Video Best Practice (1:55 minutes)

How can you make your office hours more inclusive?

Don't let your "students suffer in silence." Open the door (virtually and in-person) to encourage students to meet with you.

Reciprocal Interviewing

A values clarification activity mediates creating a positive learning environment (Foster & Hermann, 2011; Case et al., 2008; and Hermann & Foster, 2008). Researchers linked this to the following dynamics:

  • Course expectations clarified
  • Goals defined
  • A sense of comfort with the instructor and course content increased
  • Increased sense of belongingness (Foster & Hermann, 2011; Case et al., 2008; &  Hermann & Foster, 2008)
    • Builds community between instructor and students
    • Honors individual and communal needs/expectations for the learning experience
  • Underrepresented/minoritized students rate the activity higher (Foster & Hermann, 2011 & Case et al., 2008)
    • Dialogue allows students to practice constructive intergroup relations early in the course.
    • Structured opportunities for substantive peer-to-peer and student-to-faculty connections. 

When we clarify our values for ourselves and our students, we make it possible to align expectations and find the points where our motivations and students' motivations intersect. This can create a more positive learning environment across the board, but it may have a disproportionately positive impact on the students who often feel least supported in large educational contexts in the United States.

Versions of Reciprocal Interviewing

The following are two versions of reciprocal interviewing:

  1. "About Me and About You" resource with a CC license on the MTLE resource page.
  2. Interactive reciprocal interview questions

Both of these activities can take place via Zoom or Canvas discussion forum.

When instructors clarify expectations and values, they help students understand how to meet them and also open up lines of communication for students to share their own past experiences.


  • Case, K., Bartsch, R., McEnery, L., Hall, S., Hermann, A., & Foster, D. (2008). Establishing a Comfortable Classroom from Day One: Student Perceptions of the Reciprocal Interview. College Teaching, 56(4), 210–214.
  • Foster, D. A., & Hermann, A. D. (2011). Linking the First Week of Class to End-of-Term Satisfaction: Using a Reciprocal Interview Activity to Create an Active and Comfortable Classroom. College Teaching, 59(3), 111–116.
  • Hermann, A. D., & Foster, D. A. (2008). Fostering approachability and classroom participation during the first day of class: Evidence for a reciprocal interview activity. Active Learning in Higher Education, 9(2), 139–151.


  • Add Trauma Glasses to Your Teacher Toolkit (Faculty Focus): Trauma glasses are a way to conceptualize how we view and interpret student behavior, and we all need to add them to our teacher toolkit. Trauma glasses help us consider an alternative that we may not have otherwise thought of and encourage us to ask, “What is really going on here?” instead of “What is wrong with this student?” Then we can offer ways to help students within the course and share campus resources if they need additional assistance.
  • Student Health Promoting Practice  (UW-Madison Course Success Website): Our students struggle with anxiety, depression, and other stressors that can impact academics and are influenced by social determinants of health, such as food or housing security. In addition, social connectedness and belonging are protective factors that can be cultivated through effective online teaching and health-promoting pedagogies. By addressing these challenges, we create academic environments in which students can thrive.
  • Becoming an anti-racist educator (Wheaton College, Massachusetts): Provides actionable practices that help us become anti-racist.
  • Sexual orientation and gender identity: Provides definitions as well as sobering statistics from the American Psychological Association. Also, recommend viewing the Ted Talk (18:19) "Fifty Shades of Gay" where iO Tillett Wright is a photographer who captures the gray areas of gender and sexuality through a camera lens and speaks about life growing up as a teenager.

Keywordsonline, teaching, ethnicity, culture, diversity, inclusionDoc ID122422
OwnerKaren S.GroupInstructional Resources
Created2022-11-09 23:14:47Updated2024-05-02 15:11:04
SitesCenter for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
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