Improving Teaching With Expert Feedback—From Students
Teachers can improve their practice by giving students a voice in the classroom.
A student survey allows students to voice their issues, needs, and desires, giving feedback on how a teacher can change his or her instruction to help them perform better in class.
When Christopher Pagan, a physics teacher at Trinidad Garza Early College High School, reflected on his students' performance, he realized that they weren't meeting his expectations or their own potential. "I needed to come up with some way where I could improve how they were performing in class," recalls Pagan.
He didn't have all the answers, so he came up with an idea: he'd ask his students.
Knowing that his students had a hard time learning the content, Pagan wanted them to reflect on what would make them more successful in his class, how do they learn best, and what kind of in-class activities would benefit their learning the most. Furthermore, many of his students were not retaking the tests on which they underperformed and were turning in their homework late, or not at all. He incorporated questions around those problems as well to learn how he could best help his students.
The survey he developed took about five to ten minutes for students to fill out during class. "He got the information back, changed how he taught, and changed how he tutored," says Dr. Janice Lombardi, Trinidad Garza's principal. “It changed and informed his instruction. As a result, last year, his students' physics scores phenomenally increased. We decided this might be one of our best practices.”
Now, Trinidad Garza administers student surveys twice a year for all classes.
How It's Done
Step 1. Build a Small Group of Advocates: Start with one or more teachers who are enthusiastic about adopting student surveys. Track their data and impact over a year. By building small successes with this core group, other teachers will see the impact, you can share real-life success stories from your school, and you'll have a strong group of advocates who will support you throughout this process.
At Trinidad Garza, Principal Lombardi was able to share Pagan's success. This helped to bring other teachers on board.
Step 2. Get Schoolwide Teacher Buy-In: Ease your teachers into the new practice. Take your time with introducing student surveys to your staff before having them implement them. Lombardi familiarized her faculty with student surveys over a number of meetings before they actually started using them. All staff went through a trial run of having their students take the surveys, and attended two mandatory presentations during a staff development and faculty meeting. After these presentations, any future meetings about surveys were optional.
Preview the survey questions with your teachers. It can be intimidating for teachers to receive feedback from their students on how they teach. Will the questions enable students to vent their frustration and take revenge on a teacher they don't like? Can these questions threaten a teacher's job? These were some of the concerns that Trinidad Garza’s teachers had. Cynthia Hess, a Trinidad Garza English teacher, recalls, "My initial reaction was a little tinge of worry. Am I putting my professional hands in the opinions of a 17-year-old?"
When reviewing the questions with your teachers, share the purpose behind each question, and allow teachers to ask questions and share their thoughts and concerns.
"Once we were given the opportunity to look at the questions, we saw that the questions were designed to inform instruction," reflects Hess. “The questions weren't open-ended questions where a kid could be upset with you and take revenge if they were failing your class or didn't like you. Knowing that gave me a good degree of comfort.”
Gather and share research, benefits, and examples. Gather research to share out with your staff about how student surveys can improve their teaching practice. Using educational websites, Lombardi found research that showed the impact of student surveys and examples of other schools that were successfully using them.
This is what she shared with her teachers during a professional development session:
- "5 Reasons You Should Seek Your Own Student Feedback" (Cult of Pedagogy)
- "Gathering Feedback From Students" (Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University)
- "3 Ways of Getting Student Feedback to Improve Your Teaching" (Vicki Davis, Edutopia)
Lombardi also had Pagan present his experience and results with using student surveys in his physics classes. "I was able to look at both my first and second semester data and share how this survey really helped in my classroom," says Pagan. “One of the most striking things was the students’ satisfaction with their grades. That jumped about two or three points per class period, and the percentage of students that were turning in their homework in on time -- or almost always on time -- greatly increased.”
Reinforce the purpose of implementing student surveys. Trying out a new practice can seem stressful, and many teachers will be concerned about adding one more thing to their workload. Be clear on the purpose of student surveys, reinforcing how they will benefit your teachers in the classroom.
"As the time for surveys approached, Dr. Lombardi reminded us and we talked about their purpose again," says Hess.
Be clear about the process of implementing student surveys. Be transparent with your teachers about what implementing this practice will entail, what their role in it will be, and the support they'll have.
- What will administering the student survey look like?
- What will reviewing the student feedback look like?
- Are these evaluative surveys that will impact their job security?
Step 3. Create Your Schoolwide Survey: If you're a teacher and want to adopt this practice in your classroom right away, you can use the Trinidad Garza survey—or use these tips on how to create your own questions.
Keep the focus on your instruction, suggests Pagan. He explains, "The purpose of this survey is to give my students a voice to tell me what changes I can make and what practices can I implement to help them perform better in class. It has nothing to do with content. There's no questions on there about physics. It's general to what can I do to help my students."
He also suggests keeping it simple. "Think of one problem area in your class and set up some questions around that. Also, leave some open-ended questions to surface problem areas that you didn't think about."
Pagan's problem areas were homework and quizzes. Many of his students weren’t turning in their homework at all or were regularly turning it in late. He wanted to know why, and he wanted to know how he could help them fix the problem. Also, many of his students weren’t retaking quizzes on which they’d underperformed, and he wanted to learn how he could change that.
When brainstorming questions for his survey, he thought of open-ended questions like, "What can I do to help you?" and "What would be beneficial that I could change?" He also brainstormed questions specific to homework and tests: "Do you turn your homework assignments in on time? And if so, or if not, why?" and "How do you perform on tests and quizzes? If you don't do well, why is that? If you do well, why is that? Do you retake tests when you perform low on them? Why or why not?"
Step 4. Help students feel comfortable responding to the survey: The first time that students take a survey, most are surprised that they're being asked to give their opinion, and Pagan remembers that a few were apprehensive. They often have questions like:
- Are we going to be able to say whatever we want?
- Do we have to put our name on it?
Students do not have to add their names to the surveys. To preserve students' anonymity, the teachers step out of the classroom, and school counselors come in to administer the surveys. They give 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.
The counselors emphasize the importance of responding honestly and the power in using their voice, and over time, when teachers change their instruction based on their feedback, students see the impact of their honest responses.
Step 5. Review the survey results with your teachers: Either Trinidad Garza's principal or assistant principal shares the survey feedback with teachers in a one-on-one, non-evaluative session. They have two ways of looking at the student feedback: a four-point scale on close-ended questions and qualitative feedback from open-ended questions. The point scale highlights teacher strengths and areas of improvement, and the written feedback lets teachers know their students' experience in the classroom and how they can specifically help them.
A non-evaluative feedback review is important in creating an atmosphere where teachers feel supported and encouraged to take risks in their classroom, emphasizes Lombardi. "I do not include any kind of judgement,” she says. “I want it to really be their professional growth, and as a consequence, we have teachers who do change the way that they teach. For example, in one case, the students said that the class was not rigorous. The teacher had an a-ha moment. 'I thought I was really rigorous, and I'm not. Let me reevaluate what I'm asking them to do,' she told me. That's how those surveys work."
The principal and teacher weed out surveys from disgruntled students, as well as those with over-the-top praise. "There were two or three students who used the survey as an opportunity to say, 'I'm going to voice every problem I've ever had,' says Hess. "But together, Dr. Lombardi and I sorted out the outliers and established a range, grouping the rest of the surveys by common themes that were coming up."
Step 6. Take action on your survey feedback: Pagan had included questions about homework on his student survey because a lot of his students weren't turning theirs in on time, or at all. From the survey feedback, he learned that students became frustrated when they got stuck on a problem, and wouldn't turn in their homework because it wasn't complete. "Students want to make sure they get everything correct, but it's a problem for them if they're not turning in their work," he says.
Once he knew the issue behind his students not turning in their homework, he started each class by asking them to vote for one or two homework questions they found the most difficult, and then they reviewed those together in class.
"That was something I did last year, and I've carried that over to this year," adds Pagan. “This year, I found out that some of the students need more help with tests or quizzes.”
To help his students improve on their quizzes, he begins class on quiz days with a pre-quiz to review the topics they'll need to know later in the day. "If they don't yet have the topics mastered at the start of class,” he says, “we can go over those questions through the progression of class, and hopefully by the end, they'll have mastered those concepts."
The surveys help students reflect, become more self-aware, and adopt agency and ownership over their learning. "By giving my students surveys, they realize that I care about how they're doing," reflects Pagan. “Some students that were always turning in homework one or two days late, now they're turning in their homework on time. Students that had a hard time turning in homework at all, now they start to get it in more often. The student surveys allowed them to reflect and realize that if they want to reach their goals, they're going to have to put in more work, and that I'm there to help them along the way.”