Professional Learning

Student Feedback Helps Teachers Grow

February 3, 2009

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.

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