2019

Feedback FROM Students

“It is not enough to simply listen to student voice. Educators have an ethical imperative to do something with students, and that is why meaningful student involvement is vital to school improvement.”

― Adam Fletcher, Meaningful Student Involvement Guide to Students as Partners

Feedback in the classroom is an important aspect of educational practice. It is imperative that we offer rich, timely feedback to our students so that they may grow as learners. It can be done verbally, in writing, formally, or informally. It’s an integral part of the learning process, and one that drives student growth.

But instead of talking about feedback FOR students, today I’m talking about feedback FROM them.

Teachers often seek information on how we can grow and improve as professionals. We look to outside sources, searching for methods of instruction, activities, and ideas that we can pull into our classrooms and use with our kids. We then implement the new, and reflect on how it changes our practice. We reflect on how we feel it went, what worked and what didn’t, and then what we would change for next time. This reflection on practice is an impactful, necessary part of our profession, and can revitalize what we do year after year.

A few years ago, in the midst of reflecting on how my very first writing unit went after transitioning from teaching math, I found myself looking for a perspective other than my own. I wanted to know how it went and what I should do differently. I knew what parts I liked and didn’t like, what areas of my teaching needed some refinement, and I had a few ideas for adaptations or adjustments. But what I really needed to know was how I could do it better the next time. And I realized that the best people to ask were those on the receiving end of the unit—my students.

I started by asking them for feedback very informally. We had a short class discussion where I asked a couple of questions regarding the unit and invited them to share their ideas. A few of my more outspoken students shared their opinions and suggestions, and I was able to reflect on what they said to make some great changes in our next writing unit. But, I still wasn’t quite satisfied with the results. I wanted all of my students to have a voice in our classroom, and I wanted to hear what each one of them felt about the way they had been learning. The class discussion method covered some of my kids, but my more reserved students didn’t really share their view. Many of them were still skeptical that if they told me they didn’t like it, they might get a bad grade or upset me. I knew that telling me to my face was going to pose a problem for some of them, and I wanted to hear what they had to say, even if it wasn’t all glowing reviews. Basically, I wanted to ensure I was getting as much legitimate feedback on my teaching methods and style as I could, without making them feel uncomfortable. So I needed to come up with a better, less intimidating way to get it.

It was shortly after that I considered using Google Forms. Following the next unit, I built a quick survey that centered on a new instructional approach I had taken for literature circles—self pacing. I was new to it that style of learning and instruction, and hadn’t ever tried it with my students before. I had my own ideas about how it worked, but I knew that in order to really understand how it had been received, I’d need to hear from my kids. All of my kids. So I put together a specific, targeted survey (link here) that focused on getting responses about self-pacing and book choice.

The results were awesome.

Not because every single kid loved the unit, but because they really gave me some useful information for how to make it better. When I gave it to the kids, I made sure to tell them that their honesty was what meant the most to me. Even if their honest opinion was that they hated it. I made a point to let all my students know that they would not hurt my feelings, and that I really wanted to know what they felt I could improve. The biggest message I gave them was that I genuinely needed their input, that I needed them to be straightforward. I invited them to give me specific suggestions on what to do better in the future, so I could hear directly from the learners what needed to change.

It was scary. I can be a pretty emotional person, so opening myself up to that kind of potential scrutiny was nerve wracking. Especially with a bunch of middle schoolers. (They can be brutal!) But truthfully, by telling them how much I wanted their feedback and how much it mattered to me, it was like I had breathed new life into my kids. They took it so seriously. Instead of 100% of my students saying they hated the unit (like in my nightmares), there was only 1 student. And that student offered a real reason, along with some legitimate recommendations for improvement. Beyond that student, I got some incredible input from my kids that I used to create an even stronger, better unit for next time. And I found out that the self pacing model was really effective, and enjoyable, for my kids.

Now, my practice has evolved. I send out a Google Form at the end of every single unit. They follow a similar format to my first one, but are usually targeted toward a particular approach I’ve taken or new idea I’ve tried. There are forms created for persuasive writing units, speech units, self-paced grammar units, narrative writing units, and more! Each survey follows a pretty similar questioning style, for my own consistency and so students know what to expect, but varies a little based on what we worked on, the kind of unit it was, or the learning approach.

Each time I give one of these surveys, I get a little nervous. Sometimes the kids can be ruthless. Sometimes their suggestions are way off-base (like to not do any writing in a narrative craft unit). Sometimes they give you ideas that seem great, but don’t work or aren’t possible.

But all the time they help make you better.

When I send out one of these Google Forms, I get back worthwhile, useful information that I use to become a more effective educator. My students tell me what I need to know from a perspective that is hugely important, and one that only they have. I’ve changed around entire units because of suggestions from my kids, and I’ve made small adjustments to help them feel more successful or organized. One of my strongest units, our Passion Project, was born from a student suggestion on one of these surveys! Their responses are often featured when I present at different conferences as a way to show other educators how real, live kids feel about different initiatives, innovations, or instructional approaches. The information I get from them is invaluable and more helpful than I think my kids even know.

If you’re an educator looking to get feedback on a new style, unit, instructional strategy, or really anything that impacts your students, I challenge you to ask them. It’s important to communicate with them how meaningful their input is before you ask for it, and if you do that they’ll see that you value it and that you want them to take it seriously. That you’ll actually use the information they give you. If you show how much it means to you, it’ll matter to them too. If you show them how much you respect their opinion, they’ll see it as a way to be helpful and to feel heard.

Students are a brilliant source for us educators, an untapped wealth of information that can help us reflect on our practice. While inviting them to share what they think can be intimidating at first, the majority of what you hear will be constructive and full of ideas. Some will make you laugh, and some will make you feel invigorated. This aspect of my classroom has quickly become one of my favorite parts of each unit I teach. It sparks deeper reflection, helps me sharpen my skills and improve, all while showing my kids that I value their input. It encourages our classroom culture of respect, openness, and valuing one another. Through something as simple as a survey, I’ve grown in ways I never expected. I’ve created learning experiences with students at the center, made adjustments that will actually make a difference for my kids.

Feedback isn’t just for our students to learn and grow. When it comes from them, educators can learn and grow, too.

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