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Questioning Your Way into a New School Year

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August 18th, 2016

As the new school year begins, teachers are setting up their classrooms, establishing rules and procedures, creating lesson plans and activities to create a positive environment where students will engage and learning will flourish.

But every student who walks through that door will have a different and unique approach towards education. Wouldn’t it be nice to know, how will they respond to your instruction? What learning styles and needs you could address as you plan your lessons?

Surveys have become a great tool for teachers to learn more about their students. They can provide insight into individual needs, learning styles, habits and personality traits that help teachers be more proactive and effective in helping their students be successful.

The Curious Case of Sleepy Sammy

Imagine as a high school teacher, you have a student (“Sammy”) who comes into your class first hour and falls asleep most mornings at his desk. Without anything else to go on except your observation, you may think that student is uninterested, unengaged or just plain disrespectful.

Now, imagine you had started the year with an interest inventory. By providing a short survey, you were able to gather information on every student regarding things like favorite subjects, hobbies, extracurricular activities and whether they held part-time jobs.

After reviewing the data of your slumbering student, you discover Sammy is actually involved in 4 extracurricular activities, holds a part-time job at the local coffee shop, and plays lead guitar in his own band on the side.

That’s when it hits you—your original hypothesis might be wrong.

The problem isn’t so much that Sammy doesn’t like school. It’s not that he’s trying to be disrespectful and rude. It’s just that he’s over-involved and, well, flat-out tired.

How to Survey Your Students

As you may have gathered, having soft data such as life experiences and interests outside of school can really help us get to know our students. It also allows us to interact with them as individuals as we work to meet their learning needs.

So, now the question is, how do you actually do it? What sort of questions could you ask your students?

In your first week (or early in the school year), you could give the survey as a basic homework assignment. The questions you may ask could vary, depending on what type of information you’re looking to retrieve, but here is a sample list that should serve as a good starting point:

  • What teacher did you enjoy learning from and what did they do well?
  • What are you excited about learning in this class?
  • Name one fun activity that you did this summer.
  • What extracurricular activities are you involved in?
  • Do you have a part-time job after school?
  • What was one of your most challenging classes and why?
  • What makes it hard for you to complete your assignments on time?
  • If you could be a character in any book, who would it be?
  • What is one thing you wish I knew about you?
  • If you could get a homework pass, what would you use it for?

Remember, this is only a sample list and there are many other questions you could address. The point of these surveys is to get to know your students and use that information to help them engage in the learning process.

By conducting these surveys, teachers can model a respect for students and show their voice is important and that they have an important role to play in their own learning.

(A bonus would be getting parental engagement, such as having the students interview parents about their own school experiences. Besides adding an essential element to the learning process, this process could also yield very interesting and telling information!)

Gathering Other Types of Data

In addition to interest inventories and beginning-of-the-year surveys, there are many other types of data that can be collected that helps us know our students as more than a collection of assessment scores.

  • Preschool Participation (elementary) – Add this information to enrollment forms or Kindergarten registration, or have parents fill out a short survey at the beginning of the year.
  • Learning Styles (and other self-assessments) – There are several self-assessments that students can complete that will help teachers know their learning styles and study habits.
  • Attendance & Behavior Data – Knowing what a student’s attendance patterns and behavior has been in the past can help a teacher start the year on a proactive and positive note.
  • Parent Involvement – Collecting data on parent involvement can be helpful in knowing what might be needed to meet students’ learning needs. The data can include PTO involvement, classroom volunteering, attendance at events like parent-teacher conferences, reading night, field trips, and so forth.
  • Social Behavior Screenings (SRSS, SDQ, SAEBERS) – These screenings are done three times a year and can provide data that allows educators to intervene early and provide positive support.
  • Perception Data – Conducting additional surveys to allow students to share how they feel about school can deliver great insights and, in some cases, provide a safe way for students to share information about bullying. Surveys expanded to staff and parents could also create a way of assessing the school culture, effectiveness of programs, and strengths and challenges of the school.

Whether it’s using surveys or other data inventories, it’s important to provide a positive outlook for your students by inviting them to partner with you in their learning. Teachers who initiate a relationship with their students will build trust and deeper understanding of their students, which will help both the teacher and students have a more successful school year.


Illuminate Education is a provider of educational technology and services offering innovative data, assessment and student information solutions. Serving K-12 schools, our cloud-based software and services currently assist more than 1,600 school districts in promoting student achievement and success.

Ready to discover your one-stop shop for your district’s educational needs? Let’s talk.

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