Opinion
Teaching Opinion

Are Your Students Actually Learning Anything? Ask Them

Teachers have to be brave enough to go to the experts
By Jenna Hewitt King — November 30, 2023 5 min read
Illustration of a chemistry classroom focused on students evaluating their teacher
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During a meeting with my induction coach in my first year of teaching, I asked a big question: How will I know if my students are learning anything? We talked about assessment data, evaluations, observations, but none of it felt like enough. Then my coach said, “Well, you could just ask your students; they’re the experts.”

I made a survey for the end of the semester and mentioned it at an English department meeting. “You’re crazy if you think you’re going to get any real feedback,” one colleague said while almost every other teacher in the room nodded in agreement. Another colleague remarked, “Who cares what they think?”

Why would my colleagues believe that giving students a platform to share their voice would backfire? This helps to engage students in their own education. It allows them to give thoughtful suggestions and ask critical questions, which cultivates more student agency—something our education system is lacking. I want my students to feel like the classroom is our classroom, not just mine. Even though many teachers may disagree, I maintain that student feedback in schools should be at the center of what we do as teachers. The more involved in the class they feel, the stronger the relationships I have with them and the stronger our classroom culture becomes.

I decided to administer the surveys anyway, and the results were incredible. Not only did my high school students think I was a good teacher (whew!), but they gave such thoughtful and insightful feedback. They made suggestions about grading, seating arrangements, and even named books and topics they wanted to study. They were honest in reflecting on what skills they felt confident in and ones they needed to keep practicing. And if all that wasn’t enough, they were also kind and encouraging.

Unfortunately, there are still many teachers who refuse to use this practice, despite the fact that there is ample evidence to suggest that students as young as kindergarten age can provide reliable feedback on teacher performance. While many teachers would say they have their own reasons for not administering such surveys, in my conversations with them, it seems the most common deterrent is mere discomfort with feedback. And teachers aren’t the only ones who feel this way. I teach my students that learning is a process that usually starts with confusion, disappointment, or discomfort. It’s time that teachers model this by embracing these emotions ourselves in order to improve both our teaching and overall classroom culture. One way teachers can step into the discomfort—and it’s not a big step, I assure you—is through conducting student-feedback surveys.

And making these surveys is not a difficult task. Teachers can use a sample survey or create their own by asking questions about their class culture, lessons, and materials, for example, “How well did you understand the lesson today?” or “What could your teacher do differently to make this lesson more effective?”

Education is strangely one of the only industries in which feedback is not regularly collected from its primary clients.

Why wouldn’t we want to hear from the people we do this job for? Why wouldn’t we want to keep getting better at our craft? Why wouldn’t we want to give the students a voice in the classroom? Education is strangely one of the only industries in which feedback is not regularly collected from its primary clients. Educator and author PJ Caposey suggests that if educators did engage students in this way, “truly necessary transformational shifts would occur much more frequently and with a greater sense of urgency.”

While this rings true in my classroom and many others across the country, we still live in a world in which everyone but students is making decisions about what happens in our schools. Administrators, teachers, site- and district-level committees, school boards, and legislators are the primary decisionmakers about policies, practices, and pedagogies that will directly impact the classroom, and very rarely do students themselves have much of a say.

And yet their perspective is uniquely valuable. As the most diverse generation yet, Gen Zers have particular insights into issues of discrimination that have been plaguing the education system for generations. A steep rise in book banning over the past three years, for example, is not endorsed by students. Many of the banned materials feature LGBTQ+ themes or protagonists, and many others have protagonists of color. Students need a seat at the tables where big decisions about their education are being made because they will improve decisionmaking.

It’s also true that students themselves will directly benefit from participation. When youth feel listened to in their classrooms and schools, their attendance and academic performance tend to improve. Teens who participate in school- or community-based civic activities have increased psychological well-being as well as greater engagement in school. Civic participation also gives students skills that will benefit them beyond high school.

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Students should have a meaningful role in setting education policy, but their views also matter on a much smaller scale.

One year, my students were struggling with a weekly assignment that required them to analyze a news article. I decided to survey them for feedback to see if I could learn why. Students shared that they didn’t like the format required, leading to confusion and resistance. The following week, I passed out the new article and explained the change in format; the students thanked me for listening to their comments. For the remainder of that school year, they continued to offer me feedback, and our classroom culture was better because of their voices.

Since that first survey I nervously conducted, I have continued to collect feedback from my students every year after each unit of study. Sometimes, the feedback comes less formally, like a sticky note on the way out the door providing observations about the lesson we completed that day, but the most thorough and valuable feedback has come through surveys.

As I continue to collaborate with new and veteran teachers, district leaders and legislators, I always tell them about the impact of the surveys I’ve done over the years: the changes they have inspired in my teaching and the increase in student agency as a result. I can honestly say that the most valuable professional development I’ve had in my eight years as a teacher has come from student feedback. So when any teacher wonders how they’re doing or what they can do to improve, I remind them: “You could just ask your students; they’re the experts.”

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