In general, teachers can lose credibility in the eyes of their students by asking them what they want to learn. The teacher is the professional in the room and should know what the students should study.
However, there are situations in which former students’ insights can be valuable. Surveying these students about what would have been helpful for them to have learned in our classes from their new perspective can give us an awareness of students’ needs beyond our classrooms.
Example of needs-analysis surveys of former students
Short-term program for student planning to do a homestay abroad.
When I was teaching at a college in Japan, a colleague volunteered to offer a class specifically for students who were going to have 3 to 6-week homestays in the U.S., England, Australia and Canada. One could fairly logically assume, as she did, that students should brush up on the expressions necessary to make themselves understood in all those shops and restaurant that they would patronize and while traveling. However, before ordering a conversation book which focused on those, we conducted a needs analysis with 24 students who had recently returned from homestays. We administered a short, eight-statement questionnaire in which they reflected on what skills they would need if they were going to have another homestay. They rated the statements on a scale from 3 (I need a lot of practice with this) to 0 (I need no practice with this).
The Results: Completing the statement, “I need practice in …”, these are the number of students who rated these a 3 (“I need a lot of practice”)
listening to natural speed of speaking. (22 students)
talking about current events. (19)
talking about Japan. (18)
using polite English. (12)
talking about myself. (11)
shopping conversation. (4)
travel conversation ,e.g. getting directions. (5)
restaurant conversation ,e.g. ordering food. (3)
Because of this simple needs analysis survey, my colleague was able to confidently put together a short-term course which focused specifically on those skills that the students would need and not waste precious time and energy on skills that she just assumed that they’d need (e.g. shopping, travel and restaurant conversation). Also, she appeared extremely professional and confident when explaining the basis of the content of her course to our program administrators, parents of the students and the students themselves.