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Continuously Refine Your Practice With Student Feedback

A simple, tightly focused student survey can help teachers quickly home in on areas to improve—but you need to be fully prepared to make changes.

August 6, 2021
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A few weeks into each semester, Gayle Golden asks her University of Minnesota journalism students to answer a few brief, anonymous questions about the course she teaches. After examining responses, she discusses the results with her students during the next class.

“She tells them which suggestions she plans to put into practice, which recommendations she can’t act on, and why,” writes Rebecca Koenig for EdSurge. Says Golden: “If they told me something like, ‘I want no deadlines,’ I will say: ‘I heard a call for no deadlines, I understand deadlines are hard, but I can’t do that in this class, and the reason is this—sorry.’ By saying that, I have told them I have heard them.”

Known as early-term feedback, the practice is a quick temperature check that can “unearth a trove of useful information,” including a teacher’s blind spots or classroom logistics and protocols that students find confusing or inefficient. Adapted to middle and high school classrooms, it’s a powerful—and even continuous—way to gather student input to quickly refine and improve teaching and learning at either the class or lesson level. Feedback can be done very simply online or via pencil and paper, for example, and should always focus on giving students an opportunity to voice their concerns, needs, and thinking about their learning, the class, and how it’s being taught.

Because the feedback protocol generally includes time dedicated to closing the loop with students—with the teacher addressing feedback in class and then strategically implementing some changes—it’s also a valuable tool for building a positive, respectful learning environment. “Not only does the process of gathering and incorporating student feedback offer an opportunity to improve a course before too much time has passed,” notes Koenig, “it can also change the tone and culture of a classroom, enabling a [teacher] to demonstrate to students that she values their perspectives.”

The Purpose of Student Surveys

When the authors of a 2019 study conducted in-depth interviews with award-winning instructors of online courses, they found that a significant part of what set these educators apart from less successful instructors was their emphasis on the use of “data for continuous improvement.” The instructors, the researchers found, routinely collected feedback from students to gain insight into what was working or not and where obstacles might exist for students. The data they collected would then be used for “immediate and remedial action,” the study authors note. And while these instructors worked in a remote environment, the data they were looking for is applicable to in-person learning as well.

Christopher Pagan, a physics teacher at Trinidad Garza Early College High School in Dallas, Texas, began surveying his students because they were having a hard time learning the materials, weren’t turning in assignments, and often skipped the opportunity to take make-up tests. He wanted them to reflect on what would improve their learning experience so that he could understand what he might change.

Pagan developed a 5-minute survey for students to fill out in class—the results were illuminating. “He got the information back, changed how he taught, and changed how he tutored,” says Dr. Janice Lombardi, the school’s principal. “As a result, last year, his students’ physics scores phenomenally increased,” and the school made student surveys a “best practice” that all teachers implement twice a year.

Asking Good Questions

To get the most out of the process, questions should stay focused on instruction, Pagan advises, because “the purpose of this survey is to give my students a voice to tell me what changes I can make and what practices I can implement to help them perform better in class. It has nothing to do with content.” So if there’s a specific problem area in your class, like homework and quizzes, for example, questions might include: “Do you turn your homework in on time? If so, or if not, why?” Or, “How do you perform on tests and quizzes? If you don’t do well, why is that? If you do well, why is that?” Consider including a few open-ended questions to “surface problem areas that you didn’t think about,” Pagan suggests.

When Golden surveys her University of Minnesota class, she asks them three simple questions:

  • What should keep happening in this class?
  • What should we start doing in this class?
  • What should we stop doing in this class?

For a middle- or high school survey, here are examples of typical student survey questions published by organizations such as Harvard University’s Making Caring Common Project, EduCause, and the Hawaii Department of Education:

  • Are assignments clear? Are you able to access them?
  • Do you feel like your voice is heard?
  • Do you feel like you belong in the classroom?
  • What can I do to improve our classroom?

Modeling Useful Feedback

At first, students might feel nervous about delivering honest feedback to teachers, so it’s important to briefly explain the process and its value to them as students—and to you as the teacher—emphasizing that it’s an opportunity to use their voices in a respectful way to impact their experience and success as learners. You might model how to deliver productive feedback, perhaps suggesting a few sentence starters in the survey to help them get started. For example, “It would be helpful for me if my teacher spent more/less time doing…” or “I struggle to complete homework on time because…” Remind students that the survey is anonymous so that they feel comfortable being honest.

To encourage students to offer relevant, constructive feedback, rather than personal or off-topic comments, formulate questions so that they’re emphasizing the central idea of “What helps you learn?” And then be sure to “frame it upfront that [you] care about what the students are experiencing and want to make changes,” says Kris Gorman, an education program specialist at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Education Innovation.

Making Sure You’re Ready to Implement It

It’s frustrating to give thoughtful feedback and then never hear back. Before you get started, be honest with yourself about whether you have the bandwidth to engage in the whole survey process, including closing the loop with students and proposing and taking action on next steps. “I’ve always encouraged people to only collect feedback if you are ready to take action on it,” Gorman tells Koenig. “If you don’t have capacity, the worst thing you can do is collect feedback and not be willing to do anything to change.”

Regardless of how carefully you position the survey and explain its purpose to students, be prepared, as well, to hear negative feedback. If student feedback feels especially difficult or negative, try to “take what’s actionable, leave what’s emotional,” Gorman suggests. “It’s like any relationship; you have to ask ‘What’s up?’ and talk about it truthfully. You’ll find if you start to do that, the likelihood is you’re going to improve the situation.”

Finally, keep in mind that not all survey results that have merit require immediate action. In fact, acting on all feedback not only is impossible but also can destabilize your classroom routines and disrupt learning. Be judicious and consider selecting only the top one or two high-impact changes that you can reasonably implement in the classroom. Keep the rest for later; there will be plenty of time to make tweaks as the school year progresses.

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