Instructional Highlights: Linn Posey-Maddox

Through surveys, instructor learns the needs of students — and helps students get to know each other

Linn Posey-Maddox regularly surveys her students before the start of each semester to get to know them, and then again mid-semester to assess how things are going.

It’s a good way, she says, to find out a range of things, from different learning styles to concerns a student might have about the course.

“This year, with the pandemic, it felt like it was even more important to do that, and I added questions about technology and whether students had any concerns about fulfilling basic needs,” says Posey-Maddox, an associate professor of educational policy studies at the UW School of Education.

The additional questions spoke to the times we are in, as did a statement Posey-Maddox included on her syllabi that “acknowledged the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and anti-Black racism,” she says.

“I feel it’s important to let students know that we’re not operating as business as usual in these uncertain times,” she says. “We’re going to learn, but we’re going to be doing it with empathy, flexibility and care.”

As a fan of surveying students, Posey-Maddox says she taps many sources for ideas — “I definitely drew from things my wonderful colleagues have done.”

Her inspirations include department colleague Dr. Bianca J. Baldridge and fellow sociologist Dr. Jessica Calarco, whose work at Indiana University includes research on the digital divide on campuses.

Through a pre-course survey, Posey-Maddox learned that a significant number of her students resided in other countries and time zones — helpful knowledge as she considered ways for students to participate in class discussions.

Posey-Maddox recommends framing survey questions broadly so that students don’t feel pressure to disclose things they may not feel comfortable sharing. A few questions she uses in her pre-course survey:

  • What questions or concerns do you have about participating in the course?
  • Is there anything I should know that would help me to better support you and your learning in this class (e.g. your learning style, special accommodations needed, specific circumstances, etc.)?
  • What led you to take this class?

She also asks: How are you feeling about taking classes this semester? From a list, students can check all that apply: anxious or worried; overwhelmed; disconnected or lonely; OK; optimistic; excited; confused.

“It was nice to be able to summarize some of the survey responses and share them with the class,” Posey-Maddox says. “It helped students name and validate their own emotions when they saw that other students felt the same way.”

To help build community and support students in other ways last fall, Posey-Maddox:

  • Had small groups of students co-facilitate breakout room discussions of the readings.
  • Created a list on Canvas with resources related to mental and physical health and wellness, then gave multiple reminders about these resources and encouraged students to use them.
  • Had students do an introductory activity (paragraph or video) where they could get to know their peers asynchronously.

More from the Instructional Highlights Series

UW–Madison instructors have been investing great thought and effort into making their virtual classrooms engaging, inclusive and supportive. We asked a cross-section of them to reflect on their remote classes and to share, in particular, how they’ve worked to build a strong sense of community among students. In many cases, instructors say they’re learning new approaches and techniques that will enrich their in-person teaching once campus fully returns.

We’ll add to the Instructional Highlights series throughout the spring semester, so please check back regularly. If you’d like to pass along an approach that’s worked for you or have a suggestion for an instructor we might want to reach out to, please contact us at