Unless you're teaching 4-unit Physics to a same-gender class in a pre-millenniallist sixth-day Baptist school, you're guaranteed to have a bunch of very very different learners, each with very different background knowledge, different learning styles, social skills, time-management skills, life situations, cultural backgrounds etc. One of the hardest lessons I'm learning as a new teacher is that it's not as simple as catering for a few different types of learners (such as the "rather dubious categories of [...] visual, auditory and kinesetic - [...] there are no such things as visual, auditory and kinesetic learners" - from Guy Claxton's address for FutureLab.org.uk). Each individual is very... well... individual.
We can run as many surveys as we like to appreciate all these differences but ultimately we need to listen to each individual (and not just with our ears - as Annette commented, we can 'read' individual responses). We need to get to know each individual, and then most importantly - to have any integrity with our learners at all - we need to act on the needs of our learners*.
For what it's worth, listening to the ranging needs of learners over the past few years and trying to meet those needs has lead to the following action-priorities for me as a professional educator of Information Technology:
- Find out what drives each individual - what are they passionate about - and wherever possible integrate each learner's passions with their learning activities and assignments.
- Understand each individuals' range of current skills in the topic area as well as the rate at which they best learn and then find ways to allow individuals to learn at a level and pace that suits their needs (where possible grouping them with other similar learners). Hopefully this will ensure that you don't waste some peoples' time and don't overwhelm others.
- Learn each individual's confidence levels and frustration thresholds - how far from their current skills can their learning goals be set and how long can they be left to solve a problem before you need to step in to avoid excessive frustration (See Good Boy daddy - Intervention and Learning). Use this to negotiate learning goals within each learner's "zone of proximal development", monitoring confidence and frustration levels closely.
- Use a variety of different methods to facilitate learning within each group such as group work, hands-on activities, watching a demo, listening to you talk (?), group games, figuring it out on their own, project work etc. Try to 'listen' and evaluate constantly which activities are helpful to which learners.
- Extend the learning beyond the classroom - some students get their best learning done at 11:30pm at night, weekends or holidays. Providing support mechanisms for this via email groups and other technologies can help learners get help when they need it (as well as encourage a learning community).
In short, I don't reckon there's any short-cut to understanding the needs of our learners - we need to get to know the individuals themselves. And when we do hear their needs we need to act on them as we are able*. The list above gives you an example of some actions I've taken to respond to the more common needs of learners over the past years. I'd love to hear how you act on the needs of your learners, or as a learner yourself what your greatest needs are in a course.
Next up is Tip 3: Provide relevant and practical activities to learn through doing...
* Of course, the degree to which you are able to act the needs of your learners will depend on a whole bunch of external factors such as the size of your class, the flexibility of your workplace and the support of your managers - I'm thankful to work in a workplace that's keen to support the varied needs of learners!