How to get to know your students

If you know your students well, then your classroom will run much smoother, and helping students understand will be easier. When we take the time to get to know our students, it really pays off in the end. It’s very much like classroom management: If you take the time in the beginning – really take the time – it’s all worth it and saves you time in the long run.

How to get to know your students

Yes, we cannot get to know everything about our students in one day or even in a week, but we can learn a large bulk of it with these 10 ideas below to help you get started. As the school year progresses, you’ll continue to learn more about your sweetums. (And, of course, they are in no particular order.)

Get To Know Your Students with These 10 Ideas

1.) One-to-one conferring . I like to sit down with my students one-to-one at least once a week and just talk. We set goals for the week and discuss anything the student feels they need to work on. It’s our chance to discuss things they felt they did well and things they really want to work on. Then, throughout the week I can help him or her with those goals and check in. It’s a great way for me to show my students that I’m definitely here to encourage and cheer them on! (Plus, they are getting that individual attention they need!) I list out my students and divide them up by the day. Then, I try to make sure throughout that day that I get to them at some point.

2.) POW/WOW Meetings. Once a week we have a pow and a wow meeting. Students sit in a circle and take turns (just move around the circle) telling their pow (something that makes them sad) and their wow (something that was wow – awesome). Everyone just listens. Sometimes I allow the students to ask for advice, but if we are short on time, then we just listen and go on to the next student. Students are allowed to say pass if they don’t want to share. In the beginning, you get a lot of “passes” and even “I have a wow but no pow.” That’s fine. (This is NOT related to the American Indian dance. I learned it from a veteran teacher in my first year of teaching. I’m not sure why it is called that, but it’s not meant to offend anyone and would gladly call it another name.)

3.) Observation. You can learn a lot about students through simple observation. On the first day of school, I take note of who they talk to most, so I know who they are friends with, I take note if they read often, I take note of how they spend their time, etc. Observation is an amazing way to learn about people – all people.

4.) An Inventory or a Survey. At the beginning of the year, I always provide my students with an inventory on the first day to find out more about their likes and dislikes, thoughts and viewpoints. It’s a great way to get to know your students – straight from the horse’s mouth! There is also a learning inventory attached based on Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences.

How to get to know your students

How to get to know your students

5.) The Parents. You can learn a lot about your students from the parents. Just like number four above, I always ask the parents for their input. I provide them also with a survey to fill out. I provide that on the night of the open house. You don’t have to do these forms at the beginning of the school year – you can do them at any time.

How to get to know your students

6.) Writing Activities. I like to include a lot of writing activities that involve personal responses or personal narratives. These can be in the form of written papers, personal reflections, quick writes, or even just written responses. I have had students write to me in their journal, and I have responded. Sometimes that is the best way to get a student who is feeling very shy to feel most comfortable with sharing.

7.) Have Lunch Together. One way that you could easily get to know your students is by having lunch together. This could be in the form of once in a while heading to the cafeteria and eating at the lunch table with your entire class or just inviting a few students to eat in the classroom with you. Either way, you can get to know your students, and they will get a huge kick out of it!

8.) Actively Listen. I like to ask a lot of questions – but then you have to make sure you are listening carefully, not only to the message they are saying but also to the message they are not saying. Sometimes kids are speaking with hidden messages. You have to read body language and really listen. I also listen to conversations between them and their friends. Sometimes that is how you can find out things that are bothering them, but they don’t tell you. It’s not eavesdropping – it’s caring.

9.) Community Building Activities. These are often done at the beginning of the year and then no more. They can be done throughout the year. Little games, icebreakers and community building activities are great ways to see your students interact in ways they are more comfortable with and in problem-solving mode.

10.) Outside of School. I do dare say it. I know you are already committed to so much, and if your district is like mine, then you already have to commit to a certain number of activities outside of school hours, such as math night or whatever, but really, you’ll be amazed how simple and impactful that is on a child. It’s also a way to see a child in their own environment. I used to always say, “My child is a different person at home than at school.” Just consider it… There’s no law that says you have to…

Celebrating your middle and high school students’ unique identities can bolster connections and improve performance in school.

Hindered by video screens, fluctuating schedules, and health regulations, teachers are up against the odds this school year when it comes to getting to know their students.

“It’s hard to really get to know your students through a webcam,” @mark_bevacqua wrote on Twitter, while @cheri_cheralex shared her struggles of seeing students in masks or “with eyes only.”

While get-to-know-you activities are typically earmarked for the first weeks of school, they shouldn’t end there, say educators and researchers.

Whether it’s that they love to play baseball, have three brothers, or enjoy writing or photography, celebrating your students’ unique experiences and identities can bolster connections that keep them engaged and performing better in school. Students who have a deeper sense of self—and purpose—are also better able to define their goals and stay focused on pursuing them, concluded a 2014 study from David Yeager, Angela Duckworth, and colleagues.

We collected an array of class exercises from interviews with teachers, online resources, and our archives that will help students develop greater self-awareness and purpose. These insights can also give you a better sense of who they are, so you can be responsive to their interests—even if you’re separated by screens or masks.

Reflecting on Experiences: ‘Laws of Life’ Essays

In the early 2000s, educators in an urban, high-poverty district in New Jersey gave their middle and high school students an interesting essay assignment: Write about the values and principles that guide your life.

The seemingly small activity, called “Laws of Life,” is based on the work of philanthropist John Templeton, and it turned into a much bigger project that helped students develop a stronger sense of self, purpose, and possibility for the future, according to Maurice Elias, a psychology professor at Rutgers University. The project has since been replicated all over the world.

To run the assignment in your class, Elias recommends asking students to reflect on their past—in and out of school—and the experiences and people that made them who they are. From there, have students discern key characteristics that have influenced their lives and then craft an essay—or create a video or other multimedia content—focused on the “laws” or principles that drive them.

Question prompts like “Who do you admire? List three of their admirable traits” and “Describe an incident or event from which you learned a lesson ‘the hard way’” can help guide students. Periodically throughout the year, have students refer back to their essays to reflect on what they wrote and ask themselves, “What’s changed?” and “What’s stayed the same?”

Exploring Identity—and Perceptions About It: Identity Charts

To get to know her students and ensure that they felt seen in her classroom, middle school teacher Shana White created a lesson to help them explore their identities. First, White set a foundation for discussion by defining identity and explaining how identities can sometimes be visible, like age, or invisible, like a person’s life experiences.

Then, with the permission of six of her friends, White shared photos of their faces and had students guess their “identity characteristics.” Afterward, she revealed the true details and led a class discussion about making assumptions about others based on how they look or act. To finish the project, students drew their own “identity portraits” or a picture of their face with half the face showing visible characteristics and the other half showing invisible characteristics.

How to get to know your students

Wish you understood your students better? Here’s twenty questions that will help you get to know them.

We all know how important strong relationships are to successful teaching. But in order to build strong relationships, we need to understand how our students think and why they make the choices that they do.

Often we think we know what student’s going on in our students’ heads, but we could be way off. And when we’re off, students can tell. They bemoan that we don’t get them (because, let’s be honest, we don’t!), and any advice we give tends to fall flat.

We get frustrated. Our students get frustrated. And it all becomes a big mess.

So how do we remedy this? By actively seeking to understand our students. By getting to know not just their school persona but who they really are. This includes their background and home life, but possibly more importantly, their innermost thoughts and feelings that include their hopes, dreams, fears, and anxieties.

Because when we start to understand what drives them, we begin to appreciate them as a unique individual, and our relationships blossom.

And when challenges arise, we can talk about the real issues and address their true thoughts, motivations, and fears, rather than the ones we thought they had.


So we’re back to the question of how. How do we get to know our students’ innermost thoughts and feelings? Things they might not even quite be able to put into words themselves.

As we discuss in Beyond Classroom Management, the key is to be intentional. Look for opportunities to observe, notice, and ask good questions. And always be seeking to understand how your students think, what motivates them, what frustrates them, what they’re worried about, etc.

But while observing and casual conversations are important, they’re also easy to forget about in the busyness of the day. That’s why a more intentional approach can be immensely helpful.

And that intentional approach could be writing.

`Now, no, I don’t care if you teach math. Student writing can enrich both your classroom and curriculum, no matter what you teach.

I share some of my favorite ways to incorporate writing here, but one of the easiest forms is exit slips. Rather than wasting the last couple minutes of class, have your students answer a quick question and turn it in on their way out.

These exit slips can often include academic questions like “tell me one thing you learned today” or “what’s one thing you’re still wondering about today’s topic?” But you can also intersperse questions that help you better understand how your students think. Questions like these….


1. What’s one thing you wish you could change about this class? Why?

2. Describe one thing that makes you feel a sense of accomplishment. Explain why.

3. What was your first impression of this class?

4. What’s your least favorite part of school? Why?

5. Share a favorite memory you made with a family member.

6. What’s one thing you wish I knew about you?

7. What’s your biggest dream in life?

8. What’s one thing you wish you could change about our school? Why?

9. What’s one thing that you worry about?

10. What’s the best book you’ve ever read? Why did you like it?

11. What’s your family’s religious background? Does it match your personal beliefs?

12. If you could pick one person (dead or alive) to have lunch with, who would it be? Why?

13. Describe your relationship with your parents/guardians.

14. Describe a lesson you learned when you faced something difficult.

15. What’s one thing that makes you feel happy?

16. Describe something that annoys you.

17. Who is someone you consider a hero in your life? Why?

18. If you could live anywhere, where would you live? Why?

19. Who is someone you consider a friend? What do you like most about him/her?

20. Describe one of your favorite [insert holiday] traditions.

BONUS: The Student Opinion section of The New York Times’ website offers thought-provoking prompts based on current articles. Some of them are pretty great! Check back regularly for current topics here:

reach every student!

It’s so wonderful that you see the importance of building relationships with your students & are seeking to get to know them better.

But sometimes we unintentionally thwart our own efforts. In this free training, you’ll discover three mistakes you may be making that are keeping you stressed & frustrated – and what to do instead to reach every student without sacrificing your sanity.

How to get to know your students

spread the word!

Did you find this post helpful? Clue in your fellow teachers by sharing the post directly (just copy the URL) or by clicking one of the buttons to automatically share on social media.

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

A number of studies have shown the value of getting to know your students and building rapport in the classroom, which includes increased student participation, student motivation about the class, and positive perception of the instructor (e.g. Frisby & Martin, 2010; Wilson et al., 2010). Furthermore, encouraging a sense of belonging increases cross-cultural interaction between international and domestic students, and positively affects international students’ performance (Glass & Westmont, 2014). Even in large lecture classes, it is possible to get to know a conspicuous number of your students, a few at a time. For students, it’s the effort that counts. Here are some strategies that can be adapted to any classroom situation:

  • Have your students fill out a confidential background questionnaire in advance or on the first day of class. Make sure you ask questions that are appropriate to the course and that you share the same information about yourself in class. Here are some examples:
    • What name would you like me to call you? What are your pronouns?
    • What is your previous experience with [topic of the class]? This can be informal or formal experience.
    • Have you taken any other classes in this discipline before?
    • What are you hoping to learn in this class?
    • What is a fun fact about you?
    • Is there anything else you would like me to know?
  • At the beginning of each unit or topic, assess students’ background knowledge and experience and connect it to the new material
    • For a lecture course, use an anonymous and/or ungraded survey.
    • For a lab or discussion section, spend at least a few minutes of class time brainstorming ideas about the new topic and gathering the collective knowledge of the classroom.
  • Consider requiring a visit to office hours at the start of the semester. This will allow you (or your TAs) to get to know your students, and will ensure they know they can come see you in office hours when they have questions or concerns.
  • When possible, arrive to class a little early and stay a little later to chat with students. This will also allow students who may not feel comfortable raising questions during class to approach you in a low-pressure way.


Frisby, B. N., & Martin, M. M. (2010). Instructor-Student and Student-Student Rapport in the Classroom. Communication Education, 59(2), 146-64.

Glass, C. R., & Westmont, C. M. (2014). Comparative effects of belongingness on the academic success and cross-cultural interactions of domestic and international students. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 38, 106-119.

Wilson, J. H., Ryan, R. G., & J. L. Pugh. (2010). Professor-Student Rapport Scale Predicts Student Outcomes. Teaching of Psychology, 37(4), 246-51.

Date: August 10, 2021 at 10 AM PST

Students’ experiences in undergraduate field experiences, and ultimately, the outcomes they attain, are shaped by who they are, why they participate, what they’ve done before, what they know, what they feel and are able to do, and their individual needs and constraints. Student-centered, responsive pedagogy and inclusive program design require understanding students in all these dimensions. Join us for some examples of how faculty, instructors, and program coordinators are getting to know students and using this information for design and implementation of student-centered inclusive undergraduate field experiences. This first UFERN Community Conversation will feature three panelists: Fred Abbott from the Ecological Society of America, Andrew McDevitt from the University of Colorado Denver, and Kira Treibergs from Cornell University. They will share brief examples from their own experience. Their short presentations will be followed by a facilitated conversation.

Meet the panelists:

How to get to know your students

Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, Cornell University

Kira is a marine invertebrate biologist and discipline-based education researcher who studies the roles individuals play within different types of collaborative systems. Her research seeks to better understand the mechanisms behind division of labor in colonial marine animals and cooperative learning among students in natural science courses. She is intrigued by the transformative learning that can occur within field experiences and cares deeply about making field-oriented courses more inclusive to all students. Kira has a PhD in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology from Harvard University, a MS in Biology from the University of Oregon, and is currently an Active Learning Initiative Postdoctoral Fellow at Cornell University.

How to get to know your students

Andrew McDevitt

PhD Candidate, University of Colorado

Andrew has a background managing several semester-long residential field programs at Harvard University and Juniata College where he leveraged his experience as wildlife biologist and a residential life coordinator. During these field programs, he lived on-site with students and helped them develop identity as scientific researchers, build connections with the local community, and navigate the challenges associated with living at remote biological field stations. Additionally, Andrew is a discipline-based education researcher who develops analytical tools to study active learning undergraduate STEM classrooms. He is a PhD candidate in Integrative and Systems Biology at the University of Colorado Denver and has a MS in Conservation Biology from Illinois State University.

How to get to know your students

Fred Abbott

Diversity Programs Manager, Ecological Society of America

Born and raised in Puerto Rico, ecologist, educator, and outdoor enthusiast. Fred works with undergraduate students from all over the US to diversify and advance the ecology profession through opportunities that stimulate and nurture the interest of underrepresented students to participate and to lead in ecology.

As a teacher, you might think it’s obvious that you should get to know your students, but how well do you really know the young people who are sitting in your classroom? Taking a bit of time and care to get to know them as individuals can make you a more effective and impactful teacher. Beyond just finding out your students’ names, ages, friendship groups and family backgrounds, it’s important to dig a bit deeper and discover their learning interests and strengths.

The following information about your students will help you to create enjoyable and engaging learning experiences for them.

Know your students’ learning strengths

While one student might excel in arts and creative subjects, their best friend at school might find that maths, sports and science are more suited to their skills. American developmental psychologist Robert Sternberg’s theory of intelligence holds that humans typically excel in one of three types of intellect, so teachers are likely to see all these among their students. They are:

Practical intelligence

This is also called ‘street smarts’. Students who are high in practical intelligence will have plenty of commonsense and be able to adapt quickly to changing environments. These students like to play to their strengths and minimise their weaknesses. They are the students who get the job done and like to be involved in tasks.

Creative intelligence:

Students who are high in creative intelligence excel at tasks that require invention, creativity, discovery and imagination. These students are great at offering thought-provoking ideas and participating in classroom discussions.

Analytical intelligence:

Students who are high in analytical intelligence are great at tasks that require planning, critical thinking and analysis. These students are gifted in terms of their logic and information-processing ability. They are often more studious than they are imaginative, and love to digest new information.

Learn who your students are as individuals

Getting to know who your students are as individuals can help you to provide an inclusive, respectful and accepting classroom environment. This will not only help to keep your students highly engaged in learning, but will also provide a safe space for them when navigating tough times that will encourage them to open up and seek support when needed.

Some students may feel too shy to speak up in classroom discussions, and may not enjoy large-group tasks or volunteering to deliver presentations as much as another student might. Instead, these students could feel more comfortable expressing their views through online forums, one-on-one conversations or via suggestion boxes. Allowing for these differences by using a variety of teaching strategies can help all students experience success while developing their confidence in other areas.

Knowing whether a student prefers to watch a movie, play a computer game, read a book or be outdoors can help you to build an authentic and meaningful relationship with them.

Chat with a student who enjoys gaming about the latest video game, or suggest a book to a student who you know likes to read; this can build trust and show students that you are genuinely interested in their lives outside of the classroom.

Provide students with opportunities to explore key interests

Understanding your students’ interests will help you to provide them with quality learning opportunities. By giving them the opportunity to explore areas they are interested in – for example, the environment – they will be more likely to engage with the learning process.

It’s important not to assume that just because a student excels at a particular subject, sport or creative endeavour, that this is their passion. Give your students time and opportunities to explore their interests and to discover what they truly love to do, so they can develop their knowledge and the skills needed to succeed in the areas they are passionate about.

There are lots of practical ways students can be encouraged to pursue their interests. Some might need a bit of guidance to join youth advisory and interest groups – for example, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. Membership of such groups can enhance students’ sense of belonging as they learn to use their voice for change and advocacy.

The first couple of weeks back to school can feel hectic. There’s routine-establishing, environment-orienting, and community building to be done! As a teacher who wants to instill in all my students a love of reading and the skills to do it well, I want also to make sure that getting to know my readers is also at the very top of my list. To help teachers fit this effort into an already busy time, what follows are some of my favorite ways to make this a do-able part of the first days back.

1. Kidwatch. Get kids set up with books of their choosing within the first couple days of school. Set aside time to for kids to read independently and watch what happens. Who’s spacing out? Who’s giggling at the funny parts? Who is asking to use the bathroom? Whose eyes are glued to the pages? Who’s staring at you instead of looking at the book? I like keeping notes about this on a simple class list where I make up annotations as I watch.

2. Invite Reflection. Use the reader’s notebook as a spot for students to reflect on their reading histories, and to plan for their reading life this coming school year. For example, you may invite students to list books they’ve read that are great and those they’ve read that are “the pits” and then to look for patterns to inform future book choices.

3. Make the Rounds. Since many students’ stamina still needs to be built and supported at the start of a new school year, sitting down to do lengthy conferences can make it hard to find time to spend with every student. Instead, make the rounds in your classroom with quick 90-second compliment conferences. Here’s how it could go: First, pull up alongside a student and spend 30-45 seconds researching: ask a few questions, listen to the student read aloud, or/and take a peek at anything he or she has written about reading (sticky notes, notebook entries). Jot down some notes about the student’s strengths as a reader and ideas you have for next steps. Then, offer the child a compliment-in-a-paragraph: name what they’ve demonstrated they’re able to do, how that’s helpful to them as a reader, and an example from their own work. Click here to watch videos of me using compliment conferences with three fourth graders.

4. Prompt for Quick Jots During Read Aloud. For fluent writers (typically grades 2 and above), ask students to come to the gathering area one day with a clipboard or notebook stickered with four post its. Have them put their initials on the upper corner of each one. Then, read aloud a favorite short story or short picture book. During the reading, ask them to stop and jot four times. If it’s fiction, you may have them jot once for Plot and Setting (Why did X happen? What problems is the character facing? Retell the most important events so far. Describe where the story is taking place.); Character (What kind of person is X? How is X impacting Y? How is X changing?); Vocabulary and Figurative Language (Explain what X means in this story.); and Themes and Ideas (What lesson can you learn from this story? What does X symbolize? What are some social issues the author is writing about in this story?) Then, collect the sticky notes and sort/rank them. Put those students with the strongest answers to the first question in one pile, those with the most simplistic answers in another. You’ve got your first several rounds of small groups planned right there!

5. Listen to them Talk. After a read aloud, and/or after an independent reading period, invite students to have a conversation about what they’ve read as a whole class, in small groups, or with partners. Listen with two lenses: What are they showing you they are understanding about their reading? This gives insight into their comprehension. Do you hear them talking about plot? Characters? Theme? How strong is their understanding? Second, listen to how they are discussing. This gives insight into their conversation. Are they sticking to a topic? Asking questions? Debating? Adding on to others’ thoughts?

It’s easy to become overwhelmed with all the assessments we feel we have to do (or get told we have to do). Often, truly getting to know our readers doesn’t mean we need to rely on a tool we’ve purchased. Instead we should trust what we can know by listening, watching, talking, reading; we can learn a lot by keeping eyes and ears open in the first weeks of school.

Are you busy planning for the first week of school? There is so much to do the first few days of school but not much is more important than getting to know your students! Getting to know your students will help build a foundation of trust and understanding for the year to come.

The following are four ice-breaker activities that will help you and your students get to know each other better.

How to get to know your students

Ideas for Getting to Know Your Students

Paper Bag Introductions

In this get-to-know-you activity, the students will learn about you! First, place 5 items that represent you and place them in a paper bag. Then, to introduce yourself you take the item out of the bag, share it with the class, and explain why it is significant to you. Continue pulling items out of the bag and sharing about yourself.

A spin on this would be to have the students bring their own bags and share with the class about themselves! Or if you want to keep it anonymous, students bring in their bags and the class has to guess who it belongs to.

Ask for their Opinion

How to get to know your students

I bet not too many students are used to being asked, “What kind of teacher do you want?”!

They are used to hearing from others how they should behave but not too much on how their teacher should behave.

Ask them! And chart it!

This activity will only take about 5-10 minutes but will be so powerful. It will help you understand your students and what they want, more importantly, what they need.

You might even be surprised at the cool ideas that they come up with.

Finally, end the activity by promising them that you will uphold those ideas. Let them know that you value their opinions, that their ideas and opinions matter to you. Even though they have smaller voices, they are being heard when they are with you.

I’d suggest posting this chart in a special place that you will be able to see daily.

Beach Ball Throw

This is fun and inexpensive! Have a beach ball or a few? Write some easy get-to-know-you questions on the ball. Place students in one circle or multiple circles, if you have more beach balls. Students throw the ball and whoever catches it, has to answer the question that is facing them.

  • Tell one place you went this summer.
  • Share one fact about your favorite animal.
  • What kind of games do you like to play?
  • Do you prefer warm weather or cold weather?
  • What is your favorite sport?
  • How many siblings are in your family?
  • Do you like to bike ride? Where do you go?

Want to do this year round? Instead of writing the question on it, write a number on the beach ball! Then you can have a set of index cards with the corresponding number and a question. Use it for science, math, social studies etc.

Find a Friend

How to get to know your students

In this Find a Friend activity, students walk around and get to know their classmates by asking questions. They find things they have in common or learn things about each other and write their new friend’s name in the square.

This is a great activity to get kids up and moving and talking with each other. If you don’t have time to finish the whole page, do it in short spurts throughout the week.

So, if you have an extra 10 minutes to fill have them “find a friend”.

Your students will start to get to know each other in no time and will become friends quickly!

Want more ice-breaker ideas? Check out Ice-Breaker for Back to School by Jen from Teacher Karma!

What are other fun ideas that you have to get to know your students. I’d love to know! Please share them below!