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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

At the end of the year, the student survey can be your best friend -- that honest and supportive friend that gives you meaningful feedback and leaves you with something to think about. Your job is to set the stage for your friend to perform on, and then listen with an open mind. I've given surveys to every group of kids I've ever taught -- as young as second graders -- and I've found them invaluable in improving my practice.

First, let's consider the purpose of the survey. Though it can be a tool for reflection, primarily, it's a way for students to give you feedback.

An Opportunity to Reflect

A reflection is mostly for helping the learner become aware of his or her own learning experience and communicate that to the teacher. Sometimes, reflections can be kept private; sometimes, they can be shared. You can use reflections as a demonstration of student learning; a reflection should have the learner as its content.

A survey, however, has the class, school, or teacher as its content. The purpose is to get feedback on this content so that you can improve it. I suggest giving students the opportunity to reflect on their learning experience before offering you feedback on it.

Here's my spiel when giving kids an end-of-year survey:

"I need to know what you think about this class and my teaching this year. Your ideas and feelings are really important to me. I'll use this information to make my class better next year. It's really important that you are as honest as possible.

"However, I'd also like to ask you to be responsible for how you say things. If you say that you didn't like me because I always wore ugly clothes or because I was an evil witch, then I won't be able to hear your real complaints.

"I want to take you seriously. I want you to think about how you say things. If you have critical comments, that's fine. In fact, I encourage you to be critical. But I also recommend that you explain your answers. If you think I was really mean to you and picked on you, give me as many examples as you can.

"I really need your help to get better. There's no one whose opinion matters more to me than yours. I need you to be really honest."

The Format of the Survey

I like to give students the option to answer on a Likert scale and explain those answers, as well as ask some open-ended questions. The Likert scale allows students who don't want to write a lot, or write anything, to give some response. It also gives you a certain kind of quantifiable data.

I always ask students not to write their names on their papers. Sometimes they know I can recognize most of their handwriting. If students feel uncomfortable with this, offer to let them type it or dictate their responses to someone else.

What to Ask?

The question is, what do you want to know? This is hard to answer. In the beginning, and when we're unsure of how we did, we might fear brutal honesty. I've created surveys, looked at them later, and realized that what I was asking for was students' validation and approval of what I did. I didn't ask the hard questions. I didn't invite their criticism.

Ultimately, you're going to have to put your ego aside. This is also hard. Ideally, you'll give your students surveys throughout the year and they'll get good at doing them, and you'll get skilled at listening to them. But the first time, especially if it's at the end of the year, and especially if your students trust you and are honest, it can be a little hard.

But I want to know about their experiences and their feelings. I need to know.

Creating Your Survey

Again, I recommend a Likert scale. It tends to be very kid friendly (5 = I strongly agree, 4 = I agree, 3 = I feel neutral, 2 = I disagree 1 = I disagree strongly). Remember to provide the five numbers after each statement -- high to low -- so students need only to circle a number.

Here are statements to consider for your survey:

  • I learned a lot in this class.
  • I felt challenged by this class.
  • I was clear about the goals for this class.
  • I felt like the content of this class connected to my life and was meaningful to me.
  • I felt like you respected me.
  • I felt like you gave me timely and useful feedback on my work.
  • I felt like you were fair.
  • I felt like you had high expectations for me.

Also, you should definitely include open-ended questions and other invitations to respond on your survey. The answers to them add richness and allow other things to come up that you might not have contemplated.

Here's a sample of open-ended questions and requests for information to consider for your survey:

  • Which project did you enjoy the most?
  • Tell me about a time in my class when you felt respected.
  • Tell me about a time in my class when you felt frustrated.
  • What advice can you give me about how to be a better teacher?
  • What advice can you give me for how I should change my class next year?

Using the Survey

After the students complete the surveys, there are several ways to look at them: Highlight or mark salient points. Reflect on the comments that really get under your skin. Is there any truth to them?

Reflect on the praise and be conscious of what you did to receive that praise. Think about what you might do differently next year. Think about what you'll continue to do. Think about what you learned from giving a survey.

You can also share what you learned with your students. Show them some of the data. Share your reflections and the practices you want to change based on their comments.

There's a lot to do with surveys. There's a lot to learn about them. My advice, if you're just starting, is to give them frequently, have everyone involved reflect on the giving and taking of surveys, and keep refining them as a tool.

You can get invaluable insights from them, and they help students see that they play a role in shaping their education, that you want to listen to them, and that they are respected.

Do not fear surveys; they can change your teaching practice.

What would you like to ask your students? What do you want to know? Please share any experiences you've had with giving surveys to your students.

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