March 8, 2018

Every trimester, I find myself trying at least one new thing in my online courses. Last trimester, it was FlipGrid (will write that one up soon!) and I’ve got a few new things brewing for this coming trimester as well.

The one I want to write about today is a relatively simple change inspired by something I heard at the Meaningful Living and Learning in a Digital World ​Conference in Savannah. Someone there mentioned that they use a “getting to know you” survey in the first week of class. I don't know why this has never occurred to me, and I loved the idea instantly. I'm planning to use one during the first week of my online courses to gather some basic info about my students.

two purple flowers

Image by fietzfotos on Pixabay; used under a CC-0 license

​The Questionnaire 

Here are the questions I’ll be including. I'm using the "ungraded survey" feature in Canvas. Would love any suggestions, critiques or ideas. (For context, these are large-ish online 500-level physiology courses with 35-40 students per section; the courses almost always include a TA, hence the use of “we” throughout.)

  1. What name would you like to go by in this class? We appreciate any hints regarding pronunciation if your name is often mispronounced!
  2. Which pronouns do you prefer?
    • She/her/hers
    • He/him/his
    • They/them/theirs
    • Ze/hir/his
    • Please use my name and avoid pronouns
    • Other
  3. Almost all our communication will be via Canvas, and occasionally we do need to reach someone outside of normal course interactions to discuss the class. If we need to get in touch with you during the trimester, what is the best way to reach you? We will never contact you by any of these methods unless absolutely necessary. No midnight cat gifs :). If the need arises, which of the following do you prefer?
    • Phone call: include best phone #
    • Text: include best phone #
    • Email: we are required to use email
    • Postal mail: list mailing address
  4. Where in the world will you be when taking this course? (If you are not comfortable sharing your location, we understand! You can be as vague or specific as you like. Sometimes it is helpful for us to know if you are in a different time zone or country and if you have extensive travel planned during the trimester. Also, we just think it's fun to know where everyone is.)
  5. Do you have any extenuating circumstances you think it's important to share with us? Anything else we should know?
sign stating "ask"

Image by terimakasih0 on Pixabay; used under a CC0 license.

​Question Explanations

For something so simple, this survey brings up a ton of thoughts and questions for me. Here is a question-by-question breakdown of why I’m asking each question:

  1. Which name do you prefer to be called/pronunciation hints:
    • It can sometimes be difficult to know which name a student prefers in a larger online course. Often, they have not edited their Canvas display name, so it doesn’t necessarily reflect what they’d like to be called. I also say the students’ names in live sessions, when I’m recording feedback for them in FlipGrid or elsewhere, and when I’m just thinking about them in my head. I want to make sure I’m saying their names properly, and this seems like a good chance to ask.
    • I want to convey to the students that I care about them, and that I want to establish a relationship with each one of them. Asking someone’s name seems like an important first step in building a relationship. I’m embarrassed to say that I have not always known what to call some students; I’m adept at avoiding names altogether if needed, and I prefer not to!
  2. Pronouns:
    • My intent with this question is to establish that this classroom is inclusive and to ensure that if the need arises I will use the appropriate pronouns. The question acknowledges that it is difficult to tell which pronouns someone prefers in an online environment without asking. Again, I am hoping to send the message that our relationship is important, and that I want to use the correct pronouns. Not asking seems to convey the message that it’s not important and that I won’t be communicating with or about you enough to need a pronoun.
  3. Preferred communication:
    • I love this idea. It is rare that I need to reach out to a student outside of the course structures, and every now and then I do need to get in touch. Personally, I have a strong aversion to phone calls. I would much rather receive a text or email. I assume that others have strong preferences that may not match my own. Therefore, it seems prudent to ask in case the need arises. I also love the idea of having this stored in a place where I can easily access it rather than having to figure out the student’s phone number using SIS and so forth.
    • I am also playing with the idea of adding a question (next trimester?) asking for mailing address if willing to share and sending each student a snail mail letter or postcard mid-trimester just for fun. I love the thought of bringing the online class into physical reality in this way. Maybe I’ll have fun physiology postcards printed up. Stay tuned.
  4. Location:
    • We have students literally all over the world. I usually have at students from at least two, if not three, continents in each course, while most are spread out across the US.  It helps to know if they are getting up at 2 am their time to attend an optional live session at 7:30 pm my time. As I mentioned, it’s also just plain fun to know where everyone is. If I am in a city for a conference, I will often ask local students if they want to meet up for tea, which has been a fun way to connect. I am sensitive to some students not wishing to reveal their location, which I hope I have made clear in the wording.
  5. Extenuating Circumstances
    • In previous courses, I have learned all the following 4, 5, 6+ weeks into a trimester:
      • Student is undergoing extensive chemotherapy treatment on a weekly basis
      • Student has taken 6 credits of physiology in the past 5 years, is bored out of her mind and does not know that we have an exemption option for my course
      • Student is undergoing a messy divorce and is now a single parent to three young children and may lose her apartment
      • Student experienced a particular disease/condition that we are studying and is having a strong reaction to the readings or lectures
      • Student’s husband/father/mother/child recently passed away
      • Student is scared of science courses and holds the belief that they cannot succeed or will not be interested in the topic
    • How many students had similar circumstances and never mentioned it? Do I necessarily NEED to know these things? Nope. And I want to know about things that may affect their experience in my course if they are comfortable telling me. I can often help a student navigate these hurdles if I know about them. I wanted to create a friendly space where students can choose to share any difficulties they’re facing.
two question marks

Image by qimono on Pixabay; used under a CC0 license.


One of my concerns with this questionnaire is that I may be removing some of the freedom and anonymity inherent in online courses. If a student chooses not to share a picture or their own bio, they can essentially be whomever they’d like to be in an online course. I wonder if some students prefer to float under the radar, for various reasons, without sharing their pronouns or location or other bits and pieces of themselves. I don’t want to force intimacy and relationship, and at the same time it seems clear to me that strong relationships are the cornerstone of teaching and learning.

I also don’t want to induce fear or anxiety. I know that some students may not have clear pronoun preferences and that asking may bring feelings of discomfort. Others have had experiences with stalkers and may be sensitive to requests for their physical location.

I am also aware that there is already a lot going on the first week of my courses. Between getting oriented to the course, assignments, LMS, and so forth, completing the coursework and adjusting to a new schedule, it may feel overwhelming to have yet another task.

I’m going to play it by ear this trimester to see how this survey is received by students, whether it changes the feel of the course for me and/or the course TAs, and go from there.

Like all of my classroom experiments, I’m sure this one will continue to evolve over time. I would LOVE to hear your thoughts/comments. Please comment below or email me! 

About Camille Freeman, DCN, RH (she/her)

Hi there! I'm a clinical herbalist and nutritionist specializing in fertility and menstrual health. I run the Monday Mentoring community of practice and also offer continuing education programs for practicing herbalists and nutritionists (Check out this year's Deep Dive!). I'm also a former professor with the Maryland University of Integrative Health, where I taught physiology, pathophysiology, and mindful eating for 17 years. 

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