If you think you have an accurate assessment of how your school is doing, but you haven’t asked your students… you don’t have an accurate assessment.

-Amy Fast, @fastcranny

When we discuss the bigger picture of teaching and why we do what we do, we generally talk about how the central element is the students. We plan for our students, we assess our students’ learning and our own professional development is often for the sake of enhancing our students’ experiences. However, when it comes to thinking about what to improve or how our schools and teachers can get stronger, we don’t collect students’ thoughts as often as we should. If our kids are the reason we’re here, then why not ask them what we can do better?

Eliciting student feedback on your class or your teaching doesn’t mean just taking their thoughts at face value and not considering other factors. Katrina Do, of Cyber Science 3D, writes that teachers should also think through their own experience and the context of their students as factors that help reflect on a class. She writes, “Research shows that student evaluations are more positive in classes that are smaller rather than larger. Also, student feedback tends to be more positive in subjects that are typically easier to understand.” There will always be a variety of factors at play when it comes to collecting student feedback, but this doesn’t make student feedback unreliable or any less important in our reflections on how our classes are going.

Gretchen Brion-Meisels, of Harvard University, explains in an article on student voice,

…listening to young people doesn’t mean unilaterally considering their perspective…it means recognizing that young people have a perspective on the world that adults can’t share, and that their perspective should be welcomed alongside the wisdom that adult perspectives bring.

This unique view of the world that our students have is something that can help us be better able to address their needs and enhance their learning. So, how do we do that? How do we get our students’ feedback while also managing the millions of other tasks at hand?

Well, one way to reflect on whether your class is going the way you want it to is to consider students’ behavior. Lisa Coates, in an article from the Grafton Integrated Health Network, writes that “Behavior is communication.  All behavior occurs for a reason.  It can tell you how students may perceive what is happening around them, even when their words can’t.” If a student starts acting out of character, it may be a sign that they’ve got some feedback for you (or that they’ve had too much sugar or a bad day). It’s a good place to start, but I definitely want something more substantial when I look for feedback.

That’s where surveys and focus groups come into play. Many articles discuss the importance of gathering student feedback at the end of the year and ensuring that there is time to reflect on it. I’m sure there are just as many teachers out there who believe, like me, that feedback needs to be something I get a bit more often than that. Although I’m still working on improving my practice of gathering feedback more often, it is something I do at least 2-3 times a year. When my students prepare for their student-led conferences twice a year, they also get a chance to reflect on how class is going for them with just two simple prompts: “what I love about my class/teacher” and “what I think my class/teacher can improve on.” If these two questions seem too simplistic for you, there are many versions of student surveys out there (check out Marzano and Edutopia for a start).

This is a very simple way of getting some feedback, but it can bring out a lot of data that’s useful in improving my practice. This was my process for gathering student feedback a few weeks ago:

  1. During each student-led conference, I took notes on what students said could be improved about the class
  2. Those notes were then color-coded and categorized to simplify and elicit key messages (made me feel like I was back in grad school doing research)
  3. Once the categories were clear, I made a separate list of things in order of how many times that particular piece of feedback had come up

I ended up with about 8-9 big things that I needed to improve on, according to my students. Please note that these were not super specific and detailed categories. For example, my topmost category ended up being “more games, including review games.” This category doesn’t necessarily provide me with a lot to go off of and definitely doesn’t take into consideration my one class of 23 students who sometimes have a hard time playing games, but it gives me information on what my students want. I can work with that.

Check out this screenshot of my rough data collection and sorting:

Screen Shot 2017-11-28 at 5.07.53 PM.png

The third column that I didn’t include in the above image was a list of a few students who had asked for some specific accommodations to help their learning. Those are extremely important for me, especially when it comes to students who I have trouble connecting with or students who have a harder time learning than others. These consolidated notes and categories are now a resource I turn to every time I plan a lesson to make sure I’m trying to implement the feedback as much as possible.

If you’re doing written surveys, generating word clouds with the information is a great way of seeing what stands out. For focus groups, the above method might be a good way to help organize the data. However you do it, I believe it is crucial to take some time out to not only get this feedback but also to read through it and think about and reflect on it. Make sure to find a quiet time when you’re not overly emotional or tired to reflect on the data you get properly. If I had looked at the notes I had when I was upset or exhausted, I would have had a very different reaction – one that would not have helped me in any way.

The most important part of going through this process is doing something with the data. The categorization of the notes I had took me less than an hour, but it has provided solid ways to make my lessons more student-friendly for my classes over the past few weeks. Being able to constantly build better lessons for our students is one of our most crucial responsibilities as educators. Our students are the recipients of the hard work we put in every day and if we do this for them, then let’s let them help us get better.

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