by Roel Snieder

US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld propagated the concept of the “unknown unknowns.” There are, obviously, many things that we don’t know. For some of these, we know that we don’t know them. For example, I don’t know how long I will live. There are many things that we don’t know that are potentially important and that we are unaware of. Because we don’t know these unknowns we don’t act on them, even though such actions might be important or beneficial.

The unknown unknowns are relevant in our teaching because there is so much we don’t know about our students. Here is an example. A student asked me in class the week before Thanksgiving if she could be excused for class on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. I told her that I understood it was important for her to get together with her family, and that it was fine if she missed the class. After the class she came to me and told me that her request was not because of a family get-together. Instead, she wanted to be with her father on that day because that was the day he would start chemotherapy and she was the only person who could take care of him. I was so happy I honored her request!

This is one of many examples where I learned something about a student that was deeply important and that  initially I was oblivious of. To be aware of unknown unknowns I now include an optional questionnaire early in the class that student complete through the learning management software that we use. The questionnaire is called How can I best support you? In the questionnaire I ask the following questions:

  1. Many of a us have a formal name, but prefer to be addressed by another name, for example a shorter version of our name. By which name would you like to be addressed?
  2. Which pronouns would you like me to use?
  3. What makes a teacher a good teacher?
  4. How can I best support you in your learning?
  5. Do you have any wishes or needs you want to share with me?
  6. As a teacher, is there anything I need to know about you?

About half the students complete the questionnaire. Questions 1 and 2 are important because research of the Trevor Project has shown that the use of preferred pronouns reduces the suicide rate among LGBTQ youth by 50%. After all, we all want to be heard and seen, and this is particularly important when our identity is not respected. In addition to posing this question I give students name tents on which they write their preferred name and pronouns.

Questions 3 and 4 help me be a better teacher. These questions also communicate to students that I care about improving my teaching.

Questions 5 and 6 are open-ended questions that allow students to share whatever is important to them. The two questions are redundant, but I learn more from students when I ask both questions than when I ask just one. Students typically share special circumstances or challenges they face. They may share that it is they difficult for them to speak up in a big group, or they may ask for permission to do certain things in class that help them with ADHD, such as doodling or knitting. Other students share that they are neurodivergent, or that they face a personal challenge.

I don’t have the illusion that students share everything that I need to know, many unknown unknowns remain after I read the questionnaire, but I learn much about the students. In addition, students invariably let me know that they appreciate it very much that I try to get to know them better.

Discussion points

  1. What unknown unknowns do you wish you would be aware of when you are teaching?
  2. What do you do in your classes to get to know the challenges and circumstances of students better?
  3. What steps are you willing and able to take that allow you reduce the unknown unknowns of your students?