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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Student Feedback Helps Teachers Grow

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Early in my teaching career, I took a Spanish-teaching class at the University of Arizona. In order to fill out an application for employment, I had to have one of my professors give me a letter of recommendation. I learned a few things from making this request: First, if I want a good recommendation, I need to provide a template -- something I have already written so they can just sign it -- and, second, be prepared to answer a few hard questions.

In this case, my college professor asked me a question that I found to be the hardest question I have ever had to answer. Because the course wasn't over, he hadn't yet submitted final grades. He asked me, "What grade do you deserve in this class?"

The Moment of Truth

This was difficult to answer, partly because my sense of humility was fighting with my greed. But the biggest difficulty I had in answering this question was mainly because of the way the course was set up. How could I answer that question? What grade did I deserve? I realized that I did not have adequate feedback from the professor that would give me a gauge of how I was doing.

Of course, the professor was taking the easy way out by putting me in the hot seat. He didn't know how I was doing either. After an awkward silence, I responded, "Probably a C." Aside from feeling that it was an unfair question, it bothered me that I had not asked for a higher grade. He probably would have given it to me.

Now, you probably think that I am going to engage in a monologue about appropriate formative assessment. Although that is an absolutely critical part of good teaching, I want to look at this from a different perspective. In this new year, we can always do with a bit of self-reflection.

The hardest question to ask is, What grade would we give ourselves as teachers if it were our students asking us, "What grade do you deserve?"

Asking Critical Questions

Now, I am not suggesting that we ask the students to grade us. That would be unfair for us and for the students. I am proposing, however, that we actively seek for and welcome student suggestions on how we can enhance the learning experiences we create for them. Perhaps, in an open-ended fashion after every activity, we can ask the students to fill out an enhancement survey, or we can have the last question on the test be extra credit for a suggestion on how to improve the learning experience.

Depending on the students and their grade level, this sort of questioning might give limited results. We might want to consider periodically being more direct in our questions for feedback. For example, at the end of class or after a project, we could ask our students to fill out a questionnaire with pointed questions: "How much time did I spend helping you this last week? How many questions did I ask you? Do you feel I successfully encouraged you to do your best? What did you like about the learning activity? What do you want to see more of? What do you want to see less of?"

Now, if we are smart, we will do some of our own evaluation and reflection to prepare us for the answers we are likely to receive from our students. We want to look especially at the correlation of what we say we believe about students and learning and how we are applying that belief in our instruction. For example, if we believe that all students can learn, how are we making sure that this happens?

Ultimately, in order to create a high-performance learning team in our classrooms, the students and the teacher have to be accountable to one another. The trust created in such an environment will allow us to ask and answer the hard questions -- "How am I doing as your teacher?" and "How am I doing as your student?" I am interested in hearing your thoughts, and some of the answers your students have given to your hard questions.

Comments (31)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Nailah:

Thanks for your comments. Yes, I think we would be shocked at how we are percieved by students. I asked many students to rank their classes in terms of which ones they like the best. Then I ask them why they like the class. Almost without fail, they state that it is the teacher that makes the class worthwhile. This was for the most part irregardless of subject.

In getting feedback from students, we have to be careful in not letting the students get the idea that they are in charge of things, but the real power of this concept is CYCLES. If after every learning experience, teachers and students evaluate each other, and then review the evaluations together, and decide to make corrections and improvements, then a cycle of improvement is established and that improvement spirals upward. Constant feedback is the key. Now, I am not talking about loosy-goosy feedback either--Ya did good--. The feed back has to be specific and it has to be tied to learning objectives and goals, otherwise no improvements would be measurable or comparable.

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ulysses:

You are correct. Students know a good teacher when they see one and let's face it, they have seen a lot of teachers by the time they get to high school. And most would get poor grades from them, especially at the high school level. Unfortunately, by the time the students get to high school, sometimes the system has helped them acquire the attitude, "I don't care about this class. Just tell me what I need to do to pass this class and let's get this thing over with." This is an obvious tragedy because it reinforces the roles that so many schools hammer into the students' brains from preschool: I am the teacher, I know everything, I am in charge, You are the student, You know nothing, You must obey me. That is not how students learn best anymore. We've known this for 20 years yet it persists.

As a beginning teacher, you are well on your way to turn this concept around. You talk about adapting instead of trying to force change on the students only. You are beginning to realize that a teacher has tremendous power and if you choose to invest in your students the dividends will be amazing. Engage the student in their own learning by allowing them to become part of the process instead of just the product. As you know, teaching is not just presenting content to be absorbed by the students. Unless there is discovery, inquiry, exploration, exposure, then by the time they get to high school, students have that jilted attitude about learning and school. Early grade socialization is nothing more than breaking the spirit of the students much like breaking a horse that you want to ride. Even if you do it lovingly, it is still breaking the spirit of the horse. Who cares if they stand in a straight line, or if they skip instead of walk, or if they are quiet before school starts? We do not have to control them so much or at all. Well, that is another discussion entirely.

Keep up the good work and have a blast!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Chrys:

You are braver than most teachers. For some reason there is the false concept that getting feedback from students is an exercise in futility. After all, the students doing good in the class are going to give you good marks, while the ones who are doing poorly are going to blast you. Or what about the teacher who has high expectations vs the teacher who is very lax; you would assume that the students would grade the strict teacher worse than the lax one. Nothing could be further from the truth, although some students may resort to pettiness, most will answer honestly from their perspective. As I stated in the blog though, the trick is to be specific in which information you want back from the students.

I am glad that you do it frequently. I would encourage even more frequently as you and your students go about the process of teaching and learning, check on each other's progress and see if you are meeting the goals that you set for yourselves.

Good luck and Good Feedback!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ashley:

You are bang-on correct. I would just add that at the end of the year or semester, feedback from students is too late to help them. Since your current students are just as important as your future students, and since we really cannot afford to let a whole year or semester go by before we adapt, why not weave feedback from students into every thing the teacher does?

Something to think about and to act on.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

lakeisha's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Student feedback is very valuable to both the teacher and the students. Feedback allows the teacher to examine their teaching methods and how well they are presenting information to the students. But for students it gives them a sense of value from the teacher and an inclusion of their thoughts on how they want or would rather the lessons to be presented. Having this type of communication with your students opens up doors for effective teaching and student success. I think it is important to use questioners or discussions for feedback to promote teacher and student educational growth.

Alicia Young's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think it is a great idea to get feedback from students. It serves as an evaluation tool for the teacher. The students may mention things we may have never considered. This evaluation tool would be great to implement at the end of the school year, in order to make necessary changes for the upcoming school year. But, it could also be a great tool to used mid-way through the school year so that the changes, if needed, can take place right away.

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Alicia:

I think you are right in obtaining feedback at the end of the semester or year, but why wait till then? As I stated in the blog, getting feedback does not have to be laborious. It can be an extra credit question on a quiz or a test. It can be an exit ticket and it can be an essay assignment--any time during the year. You are trying to build a high performance learning team here and this is one way to help them know that your are serious.

You are right, this can help you make changes "right away."

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

sharon R's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I as a student I think that feedback is a great way for a teacher to improve. Feedback allows the teacher to examine their correct and incorrect teaching methods and how well they are presenting information to the students because all students are different and learn in different ways. I remember my first semester in college I had to take algebra and I'm not good in math at all and the teacher did not help. Every time I had class I had a really hard time understanding especially when the teacher goes to fast. I would tell my teacher to please explain something that I did not understand and she would tell me that I needed to go to the lab. I wrote a letter to the teacher with some advises for her to be a better teacher because she was a good person but did not have to much patience and I made the whole class sign the letter. Two years later I had her for another math class and I was surprised I never though she would take my advise but she did. I was able to understand everything and the whole class was really happy with the way she was teaching.

seth lopez's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

i agree with the idea of getting your students feedback. i think it helps a teacher better understand if he/she is delivering the material to their students in a manner that makes learning easiest. also, asking your students opinions helps to create a trusting relationship with the students.

Catherine Bennett's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ben,
You have given me a great idea to try in my classroom. I currently teach 7th grade, and get frustrated that things are not going right. Maybe if I actually ASK the kids how they feel we can work on things to improve the class for everyone. Thank you!

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