Get to Know Your Students

A photo of three students sitting on a couch and studying.

What assumptions do we often have about our students?

  • They are young and “kids.”
  • They haven’t had much life experience.
  • They’d rather be social than in class.
  • They know all about technology.
  • They party a lot.

But what do we really know about our students? What do we know about their intellectual and socio-emotional development? Questions we might want to ask ourselves to examine our assumptions about our students are:

  • What are the age ranges of our students?
  • What about race and ethnicity?
  • What about international students?
  • And most importantly, what difference does this make in our teaching and their learning?

UNT students’ developmental characteristics range across the life span. No longer are we only talking about 17-21-year-old students. Our students have diverse life experiences and many of those experiences directly or indirectly impact their learning in our course. Human development related to learning includes intellectual as well as social-emotional factors. Each learner is unique, however there are developmental themes that have an impact on all learners.

As students mature and engage in challenging learning experiences, they tend to move from simpler to more sophisticated modes of thinking. Some students come to us already more advanced in their intellectual development while others do not. Per Perry’s oft-cited work (1968), students move from seeing the world as black and white to one where they can engage multiple points of view. From there, they begin to form their own opinions based on evidence. One of the purposes of university education is to facilitate and challenge thinking during this developmental process. 

Getting to Know Your Students

We will explore the various ways you can provide learning strategies that specifically address your students’ needs and facilitates their intrinsic motivation.

  1. Begin with the course learning outcomes and assignment characteristics. Each learner will have experienced different learning situations and developed learning tools that may or may not be useful in a new learning situation. Ask yourself what background knowledge and learning tools learners will need to accomplish these outcomes? What characteristics could affect their responses to the learning assignment?
  2. Identify student demographics. Refer to this infographic for specific information about UNT students. You can begin to learn about students by looking at the demographics of students who typically enroll in a course you are teaching or plan to teach. You can find this information by looking at past rosters or talking to faculty who’ve taught the course.
  3. Conduct assessments of your learners. Assessments provide information that can help you identify students’ strengths and weaknesses. You can then use this information to identify appropriate levels of challenges for individual students and/or groups of students. The first day of class is a great time to learn about your students. Read this Faculty Focus article for valuable first-day of class tips. The Carnegie Mellon Eberly Center has tips for assessing students’ prior knowledge.
  4. Have students assess themselves. Students can learn to assess their own learning needs. This webpage from the University of Reading has some general guidelines for designing student self-assessments.
  5. Consider your own assumptions about learners. Reflecting about these assumptions will guide you to select assessment tools that will support and/or invalidate your assumptions.


Center for Learning Enhancement, Assessment and Redesign. (2016). Teaching Resources for Engaged Educators [online training modules]. Denton, TX: University of North Texas.

Perry, W. (1968). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: A scheme. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.