Be Better: Feedback from Students

6 Jan

As promised in my previous post, “Be Better,” I’m going to highlight a handful of the ways we individual educators can take our own initiative to improve our craft.

This week, that way is by feedback. There are two kinds of feedback that I think are valuable to every educator: feedback from students, and feedback from colleagues (peers and admin); today I’ll post some ideas on student feedback for teachers.

I’m starting the second semester off with some (overdue) feedback from my students. I usually do this the easiest, most anonymous way I know — booking the school’s laptops and asking kids to fill out a brief survey from Survey Monkey.

I ask questions like:

1. What works for you in English class this year — engages you and helps you learn? (choose as many as you’d like)
2. What doesn’t work for you in English this year — what doesn’t engage you and doesn’t seem to help you learn? (Choos as many as you’d like)
3. Whether or not you *like* English class, do you feel that you have improved since the beginning of the year?

I give many multiple choice options for the first two — basically everything we do over the term: SPIDER Web Discussion, Dialectical Journals, grammar, reading, viewing, etc. — and I find the results interesting (and often surprising). Many times I have discovered my suppositions to be erroneous. For example, last year several students in a class complained vociferously about SPIDER Web Discussion during class time, but on the feedback form (which is electronic and totally anonymous), the majority of students in that class ranked it as something that “worked” for them.

But it’s easy to give surveys with questions like these. It’s much harder to ask tough questions that you might not like hearing the answer to. Guess what? You should still do it. So I bite the bullet and include questions like these:

1. If you could change some things about the way Ms. Wiggins teaches, what would it be? (choose as many as you’d like)
2. How do you like English so far this year?
3. Would you recommend your Ms. Wiggins as a teacher to other students?

These questions all have multiple choice answers that I try to keep as kid-friendly as possible. But I require a fill-in-the-comment-box question that must be filled in for the survey to be completed, which asks: What can Ms. Wiggins do to improve as a teacher — to engage you more in class and help you learn better?

I’m human; I just want to be loved and adored by my students at all times, but that isn’t the point of my job (it’s the point of my ego). My job is to cause learning and find better ways to do that. If I don’t get honest feedback from kids about how I’m doing and how I can get better, then I’m not really serious about wanting to be a better teacher.

We have to get over our egos — we owe it to our students. The great irony of us teachers is that we are great at doling out feedback every class period of every day — assessing papers, congratulating a student on a project, chatting with another to discuss her attention difficulties — but we are pretty timid when it comes to asking for feedback on our performance. How can we give out feedback every day and be too fragile to invite and accept it back?

Like I said, I’m human. I’m always terrified to read the feedback my students leave on the surveys, always anxious it will once and for all confirm that I’m a horrid person and they all hate me. But there goes my ego talking again — it’s not about me, the person, at all. It’s about me the teacher. As they say in one of the greatest movies of all times, The Godfather, “It’s business, not personal.” It’s about my performance as teacher in the classroom. And, truth be told, I’ve rarely had a student say anything that hurt my feelings. Most of their feedback is overwhelmingly positive. But the interesting, unavoidable fact is that it’s the critical feedback that is the most helpful. The student who noted that I rarely used the board touched on a fear of mine that I tend to talk too much. The student who said their class felt put down when I compared them to my other classes helped me understand that my motivational approach wasn’t working. And the student who said I didn’t vary my class enough helped me see I was too enamored with my favorite teaching method to see that we needed more variety in class. While it’s very affirming to see positive feedback from students, now it’s the critical feedback I look forward to, because I know it will help me grow more.

Another real benefit of regular feedback sessions like this (which only take about 15 minutes of class time) is that the students really appreciate that their voices are heard, especially if they have a gripe and are too scared to tell you about it face to face (I wouldn’t have ever done that in college, let alone in K – 12). I make a point of showing them the Survey Monkey bar graphs on the overhead projector when the results are all in and I’ve looked through them, and I highlight comments or concerns that warrant a change in the way we do class. I may publicly express surprise that a certain text ranked as their first choice for the year, or I may acknowledge that several students commented on how little grammar we were doing and vow to change that the very next week in response. I find students are surprised and a little stunned that they get “heard” in this way and that teachers consider their opinions about the course as valid and thoughtful. I recommend debriefing the feedback in this way, not only so they see that their comments are read and considered but also so they understand that it’s a dialogue and not a one-way rant or something to blow off. And showing them that their thoughtful comments can have a direct impact on how the class is run is a great way to develop that dialogue. This is one reason it’s important to do this kind of feedback regularly, throughout the year, and not only at the end, when anything they say will have no impact on their own experience.

Other low-tech ways of soliciting feedback is to have a suggestion box in the classroom or pass out an index card to each student at the end of every week or two and ask them to jot down answers to two questions: What worked for you this week, and why? What didn’t, and why?

But I find, paradoxically, that the cold, anonymous, impersonal nature of the online survey is really the best vehicle for getting authentic feedback. Students will always worry that you recognize their handwriting and may not be honest enough in handwritten surveys. I noticed when I switched to anonymous online surveys that the quality of the feedback was far more honest and less sugar-coated — a good thing for any educator who wants to improve.

I’ll confess I’ve had a busier than normal first semester with four preps, all of them new to me this year, and I’ve let my feedback slip. I plan to do my first round with students tomorrow morning on my first day back after winter break. My goal is student feedback three times this next term — see if you can do something similar, and post your thoughts on the results here in the comments section.

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One Response to “Be Better: Feedback from Students”

  1. Norma Gordon (@gbdsacmath) January 6, 2013 at 6:15 pm #

    Good article about the value of student feedback http://www.kappanmagazine.org/content/94/3/24.abstract

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