Does your school require student evaluations for all teachers? Is it up to the teacher to seek feedback from students? While getting feedback from students can seem scary at first, doing so can provide educators with valuable insights that can improve teaching and learning for future students.
Why are student evaluations potentially scary? They can bring up many emotions for educators. Some worry that anonymous student surveys will result in mean-spirited comments.
In a 2022 We Are Teachers post, “Help! My Students’ Brutal Course Evaluations Make Me Want to Quit,” by Kelly Treleaven, a reader seeks advice because they received student comments such as “This class is a joke—I didn’t learn anything,” “You look disgusting,” “Your jokes suck.” Ouch! This makes you wonder if one student was trying to be mean or behaving immaturely. Regardless, it is hard not to take this feedback personally.
And there’s the question of whether student evaluations collect helpful data.
In a 2020 Inside Higher Ed article, “Even ‘Valid’ Student Evaluations Are ‘Unfair,’” Joshua Eyler, director of faculty development at the University of Mississippi, comments on a study that found that higher ed student evaluations of teaching (SETs) are not valid indicators of quality teaching. Eyler states, “There is a big difference between asking students about a professor’s “behaviors”—whether they have a sense of humor or they’re engaging—and observing whether professors are using evidence-based teaching strategies. That’s because behaviors are rarely if ever correlated with student learning, whereas good strategies are.”
The Benefits of Student Feedback
Now that we have the bad news out of the way, let’s focus on how student feedback can benefit educators in improving their skill and craft. Jennifer Gonzalez writes in her 2014 Cult of Pedagogy post “5 Reasons You Should Seek Your OWN Student Feedback” that student surveys can help educators in several ways:
- You can provide increased student engagement by asking students which activities they enjoyed the most.
- By getting to know your students better, you can build relationships, which helps prevent possible discipline issues down the line.
- Information about the level of difficulty that students are experiencing in your class makes it easier to offer differentiation.
- Learning about unseen harassment allows you to implement bullying-prevention efforts.
- By addressing issues that come up before an official schoolwide survey is administered, you can be better prepared.
How to Get Valuable Student Feedback
These benefits won’t be possible unless you’re asking the right questions. The popular survey website Survey Monkey suggests the following questions that will collect “actionable insights from your students”:
- How much time do you spend on homework every night?
- Which classroom activities do you learn from the most?
- What are three things that can improve the class the most?
- What advice would you give to students in next year’s class?
- What are you proud of accomplishing in class this year?
In the 2015 Edutopia article “3 Ways of Getting Student Feedback to Improve Your Teaching,” Vicki Davis suggests the following questions:
- Is there something you wish I knew about this class that would make me a better teacher?
- Is there a habit I need to work on improving to be a better teacher in the future?
- Is there something you wish that you could have told me this year?
- Is there anything good you’d like to leave as an encouragement to me?
Davis also recommends asking students to list a minor thing you could do to improve. The method of delivering the questions can vary. She goes on to say that feedback can be collected by anonymous student evaluation and through focus groups and anonymous notes.
Anonymous student evaluations might be more appropriate for older students in high school because they are (hopefully) more mature in their delivery of critique. Younger students in upper elementary and middle school may not know how to appropriately respond to an evaluation. Hence the aforementioned “Your jokes suck!” comment. Teachers can explicitly teach students how to give feedback that is honest, kind, and constructive.
Providing Instruction on Giving Feedback
I teach giving feedback by holding a focus group session with my middle school students at the end of the year. I ask them to share ideas of what I can change and keep about the course that will benefit next year’s class. I assure them that I will write down everything they suggest, but I might not act on their suggestion.
For example, if students suggest that I stop teaching grammar, I thank them for their bravery in sharing their opinion but let them know I cannot completely remove grammar from the curriculum. I might follow up with “What can I do to make grammar more interesting?” The practice of an open focus group demonstrates to students that their voice matters and, furthermore, the manner in which they deliver a criticism is important.
While I lead a focus group at the end of the year as a culminating activity, note that feedback can be requested any time of year.
In the 2016 Edutopia article “Improving Teaching With Expert Feedback—From Students,” Emelina Minero writes about a school that “gives the surveys twice a year, about six to eight weeks into each semester, allowing students to discover what does and doesn’t work for them in the classroom before taking the survey.” Just as teachers formatively assess students several times throughout a unit, teachers can request formative feedback from students throughout the year.
As you think about student feedback for the upcoming school year, consider the benefits you will gain as an educator.
Frequently gather feedback in a variety of methods throughout the year to keep a finger on the pulse of the student experience in your class. This can be as simple as asking for a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to indicate whether they learned from an activity. Small requests like this will send the message to students that you value their voice in the teaching and learning process.