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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: The Value of Having Students Evaluate Teachers

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 30, 2019 22 min read
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(This is the final post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

Should teachers encourage student evaluations of their classes and their teaching? If not, why not? If so, what are the best ways to do it?

In Part One, we heard from Roxanna Elden, Adeyemi Stembridge, Kathy Dyer, Sheila M. Wilson, and Madeline Whitaker Good. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Roxanna, Adeyemi, and Kathy on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Part Two‘s contributors were Dr. PJ Caposey, Kate Wolfe Maxlow, Karen Sanzo, Rachael Williams, Andrea Clark, and Donna L. Shrum.

This three-part series is “wrapped-up” today by Shaeley Santiago, Amy Fast, Sheila B. Robinson, Ed.D, Jennie Farnell, Gary Armida, and Douglas Reeves. I’ve also included comments from readers.

Response From Shaeley Santiago

Shaeley Santiago is an ESL instructional coach and teacher on special assignment (TOSA) for the Ames Community school district in Ames, Iowa. Prior to becoming a coach, she was an ESL teacher at Ames High School for 10 years. She is a big fan of social media for teachers; you can follow her on Twitter at @HSeslteacher:

If teachers want to improve their practice (and who doesn’t?), they should offer their primary audience the opportunity to give feedback! Although students aren’t pedagogical or curricular experts, they are very capable and usually thrilled to share their opinions about the impact instruction has on them. However, if you don’t intend to do anything with the feedback you collect from students, don’t waste your time or your students’ time!

Incorporating feedback from student evaluations requires teachers to be vulnerable. In today’s climate of increased scrutiny of education, that’s not always easy to do. So why should you willingly open yourself up to students’ evaluation? Here are some reasons.

  • As “consumers” of our classes, students are uniquely positioned to give us feedback. If we’re not meeting their needs as learners, we’re missing the mark.

  • Just like assessing our students, it’s helpful to collect convergent data on our teaching. Besides mandatory evaluations by an administrator, feedback from students, colleagues, and parents can help us achieve a 360° view to eliminate potential blindspots.

  • Education is an enterprise devoted to continual learning, and that doesn’t apply just to students. As the chief learners in the classroom, teachers should model a willingness to incorporate feedback from multiple stakeholders.

  • By using student suggestions to improve our practice, we elevate student status in the classroom and show we value their input.

Now that you’re convinced of the value of student evaluations, here are some ideas for how to structure them. Use an electronic form such as a Google survey to collect and analyze feedback from students. Consider using a variety of question types including scales for ratings on topics such as “My teacher gives me clear feedback on how I can do better on assignments,” as well as open-ended questions where students can give specific examples of how your instruction helped them learn. Another informal method is an exit ticket. Toward the end of class, give students an index card and ask them to write down one thing about your class that they have found helpful and one area where you could do something differently that would make it easier for them to learn. In both cases, keeping the feedback anonymous encourages students to be more open with their suggestions. Sharing your own reflections on changes you will make as a direct result of the student surveys sends the message that their opinions are important to you.

One my favorite formats for student feedback is a letter of advice from each student giving me suggestions on how to teach the class better the next time. To set up the assignment, I included a list of units covered that semester along with some topic ideas that students could choose to address such as how they changed from the start of class to the end, their most and least favorite units, what they found most difficult in the class, and how this class compared with other English classes. Students were asked to write about three different topics in their letter. The data from these letters varied since the exact topic choices were left up to students. However, general trends were noted across the letters, and sometimes very specific points were made about a teacher behavior (speaking too fast), particular unit (Romeo and Juliet) or the impact on student learning of the physical setup of the room (tables for two so students automatically had a discussion partner). My experience with the letters of advice was that they provided me valuable insights into what worked well for students and where I could improve my teaching practice. By allowing a venue for student voice, I gained a critical perspective on my instructional impact.

Response From Amy Fast

Amy Fast is an assistant principal in McMinnville Ore., education commentator, and author of Its the Mission, Not the Mandates: Defining the Purpose of Public Education:

Ironically, the most underutilized stakeholders in improving the effectiveness of our education system are our students themselves. When it comes to evaluating how students are doing in their learning, it turns out student self-assessment is possibly the most effective means by which we can measure their growth. Similarly, when it comes to teacher effectiveness, it turns out student perceptions are more reliable measures than supervisor observation. After all, students’ perceptions of their learning environment are their reality, whether we have the same perceptions or not.

While it is true that investing in and improving our adult actions have the largest impact on students’ outcomes, if the students don’t actually feel the impact of an adult’s action, making changes on this front is largely in vain. For instance, after observing a teacher, a supervisor may suggest that she stand at the door to greet her students at the beginning of class in order to form better relationships and create a more welcoming environment. The teacher may make that change, and during a subsequent observation, the supervisor may note that the change has been made—reflecting an improvement to the learning environment. However, if the students don’t feel welcome as a result of the change, then did the change in adult action really result in a change to the students’ experience?

We often look at “effect data” in schools to point to the effectiveness of teachers. We cite grades, test scores, and students’ work samples to determine an educator’s impact. This seems like an obvious and common-sense practice until we start to unpack the greatest predictors of student success when they leave school. A student’s GPA and SAT score may help him get into a good college, but these factors don’t have much correlation to success in the workforce or success in his personal life after that.

The best predictors of a student’s future success and the best measures of a student’s current investment in her education aren’t her grades or test scores but rather her levels of hope and engagement. Hope is a better predictor of success than any traditional measure of success we have in schools. Hope and engagement are the “cause data.” They are the invisible force that leads to doing well on other measures of achievement. They are the true factors that lead to success in school and in life.

Shouldn’t we put our efforts into that which leverages the greatest success for our students rather than just that which is easiest to measure? Students spend exponentially more time in their classroom than the teacher’s supervisor does and students are the experts on their own learning experiences. The saddest and most ironic practice in schools is how hard we try to measure how students are doing and how rarely we ever ask them. Ask the students how they are doing, and we’ll have a better picture of what their teachers can do to help them.

The survey below is based on the work of Carol Ann Tomlinson, expert in differentiating teaching and learning in order to harness student motivation. If we are truly serious about giving quality feedback to our educators and if we are truly serious about assessment that drives our instruction—let’s start with seeking to understand the factors that impact our students’ desire to learn: affirmation, contribution, purpose, power, and challenge.

Teachers can look to their supervisors and colleagues for feedback on how to improve the strategies they utilize in their classrooms, but they should look to their students as the real barometer of their effectiveness by starting with how their current practices impact their students’ perceptions and thus, their students’ realities.

Giving a survey like the one above, is a great place to start. Allowing students to complete the survey anonymously and encouraging them to comment on each statement (regardless of whether they agree or disagree) will provide the most accurate, honest, and actionable feedback. Giving a survey like this on a Google form at various times throughout the year is an efficient way to get a snapshot of the places in which we should invest the most energy. If most students feel affirmed in the learning environment but do not feel a high level of challenge, that is much different work on the teacher’s part than if students feel that the work is rigorous but do not feel well-known or cared about in their class.

This level of nuance is extremely hard to capture in a few classroom observations throughout the year. And there is a shift that happens in student motivation and ownership by simply asking them how we are doing. It shows them we care, that they are the most important stakeholder of their learning, and that their voices matter.

Response From Sheila B. Robinson, Ed.D.

Sheila B. Robinson, Ed.D., is an educator and consultant who helps people design powerful presentations that engage audiences, create effective surveys, evaluate programs, and use data visualization to communicate results. She offers professional-development workshops on all of these topics and is the author of Designing Quality Survey Questions:

This question is as complex as any in education. It is an issue nested in the larger context of the accuracy and effectiveness of teacher evaluations and one which, not surprisingly, inspires more questions than answers. Myriad concerns need to be addressed, including:

  • What weight might student evaluations carry (relative to administrators and test scores) in the overall evaluation?
  • At what grade level should students begin evaluating teachers?
  • Will teachers be open to student evaluations?
  • Will students be honest? What about students who just don’t like the teacher or who have a grudge?
  • Will student evaluations influence teacher practice?
  • Should parent voice also be included in evaluating teachers?
  • What does the research say about this?

Much of the literature exploring K-12 student evaluations of teachers presents a positive stance on the practice. Students are, in fact, uniquely positioned to evaluate teachers because their evaluations are based on dozens, if not nearly a couple of hundred, observations. Contrast this with administrators who visit just one or a few times per year.

One study determined that student surveys, especially when used in conjunction with other measures, could accurately predict teacher effectiveness. Another study found that teachers were somewhat more open to the notion of student evaluations when they—the teachers—were first asked about teachers evaluating principals. As for the few students who might be “out to get” a teacher, the law of averages addresses this, minimizing the impact of a few poor reviews, one of the most prominent concerns among teachers.

When student evaluations are used, it’s important to note that “surveys are only as valuable as the questions they include.” This is true for any survey or assessment. Questions need to be carefully considered, well-crafted, and pilot tested before they are used. “Although there is no hard and fast rule about the exact age at which children can be successfully surveyed, some researchers suggest that children under 4 years of age not be surveyed at all” (Robinson & Leonard, 2019, p. 48).

I recommend Amanda Ripley’s particularly insightful article, Why Kids Should Grade Teachers to learn more about student evaluations.

Response From Jennie Farnell

Jennie Farnell is assistant director at the English Language Institute, University of Bridgeport. Her responsibilities center on curriculum, assessment, student advising, and teacher professional development. She holds an M.A. in applied linguistics from the University of New England, Armidale, Australia. She has been teaching ESL/EFL since 1998 to all levels and ages of students, from the wilds of Japanese junior high school to slightly tamer American university students:

The Value of Student Evaluations

I believe it’s absolutely crucial for teachers to encourage student evaluations. Evaluations are mandatory at many universities; however, K-12 students aren’t often offered the opportunity to share their voices. The information gleaned from student evaluations, especially when analyzed over time, is invaluable feedback to teachers about what they are doing well and areas where they can better meet their students’ needs and expectations. We as teachers assess students formally and informally all the time, and that information guides our lesson planning, approaches, and student supports. Why shouldn’t we as teachers have the same opportunities to grow and learn through evaluations?

There are two key aspects to designing and administering effective evaluations. First, the questions must be well-designed. A good approach is a Likert scale with an additional box for open-ended comments. The questions should be narrow. “Do you like this class?” is too broad. “Does the teacher show respect to students?” is specific. Additional opened-ended comment boxes at the end, for example, “What do you like about this class?”, “What would you like to be different about this class?” are excellent opportunities for teachers to get more detailed and specific feedback.

Secondly, the students must feel they are in a safe environment. They should be reassured that there will be no repercussions for their answers, no matter what their answer is. Students should also understand that this is an opportunity for them to learn how to give respectful, valuable feedback, a skill that they will use all the time in the real world. Surveys should be anonymous and, if possible, conducted via computer, so handwriting isn’t recognizable. Teachers should explain the reason for the evaluation and stress the value of honest feedback. I present it to students as a chance for me to be a better teacher for them and also for future classes. I use the analogy of this being like the tests students take: an A feels great, but a C, with helpful information about how they can improve their grade, helps them learn and improve. The teacher should not be present when the evaluations are done. If evaluations are conducted during the school year, teachers should acknowledge to the class that they have read the evaluations, thank students for sharing their thoughts, and if there is something that in the evaluations that the teacher wants to act on, explain that they learned “XXX” from the students’ surveys and will be changing the class in “XXX” way. Feedback that isn’t followed up on sends the message that the evaluation was just a hollow gesture.

Finally, teachers need thick skins and the ability to look at a preponderance of evidence. Even after 20 years, there is always an “ouch” factor when I read a class evaluation and find someone hated me. At the same time, I usually feel really sorry for that person who had to spend the entire class with me. Teachers should look for averages in each category; it’s even better if there can be a historical average. Every class is different, and what works in one might fail miserably in another. My advice is to focus on repeated poor scores or comments in a particular area and reflect on why students might be feeling that way or how teachers could change their approach. Lastly, don’t be afraid to discuss evaluations with trusted colleagues; they might have insights into your personality or teaching style that can help you understand students’ responses.

Response From Gary Armida

First and foremost, Gary Armida is the father of the best kid in the world. After that, he has been a teacher for 20 years, getting to share a classroom with some amazing kids throughout that time. He is also the co-founder of the Teacher and The Admin website:

As much as I can honestly say I put into the work, at the end of every year, there is always a feeling of disappointment. I think of the lessons that fell short. I think of the ideas I had after I actually went through units. I think of the things that would’ve been more beneficial. Those feelings of failure are what drive me to want to be better, to want to do more. And, most importantly, to want to learn more. I will learn by reading other professionals. I will learn by talking with other professionals. But, my best source of improvement comes from those who I am trying to teach. Throughout the year, I will ask students for feedback on lessons and units. At the end of every year, I always give a course evaluation. It is important for me to hear what kids have to say.

It is never a waste of time to ask students what they think about your teaching or your class. If you provide a safe place and give the proper questions, students can provide tremendous, in-depth feedback that will improve your instruction and make your classroom better for your next group of kids. If you truly want to get better, evolve, and become a more effective educator, you must be willing to hear it all—the good, the bad, the ugly, and the downright nasty ugly. We need to make it a regular practice to ask kids about their time in a classroom.

Make It Anonymous

You are more likely to hear the truth when a kid knows that he/she can keep his/her identity private. That keeps the worry about grades out of a student’s mind. Even though you would never do it, it is natural for anyone to think that. Think about when an administrator asks you to complete a survey. If your name is on it, you do think twice or word things differently.

Short Answers Are Valuable

We have this bad trend in the education field that puts quick data as more valuable than actual feedback. Sure, you could probably Google a quick survey with multiple-choice answers such as “highly effective” and a range down to “not effective,” but what are you really gaining? Ask kids questions; let them write their answers. Their answers can give you a clue about so many things, not just the question you are asking.

Ask Them What They Wish

I always want to know what kids would’ve liked to learn in class. A lot of the times, kids will give titles of books that they wished to have read or activities they would’ve liked to have completed.

Ask Them What Activities They Did and Didn’t Like

Your favorite lesson on your favorite book may not have resonated with kids. If you get enough negative feedback, it is probably time to revamp. Or maybe it’s time to pick something that may resonate more with kids. If you get kids to buy in, maybe you can bring in your favorite activity to show the relationship. It’s easy and gratifying to read about the stuff kids dug, but it is equally important to hear what things didn’t interest them. Then, you can decide whether the lack of interest outweighs the intentions of the lesson.

Ask About Your Style Of Teaching

Yes, this can be sensitive. But wouldn’t you rather know if your way of doing things is effective? If enough kids say they are confused or needed something else, you must change. Changing is difficult, but if your goal is to reach kids, you must be willing to hear feedback and evolve.

Ask Anything You Feel Could Help

Are you curious about a particular lesson and it’s lasting power? Ask. Do you want to know if students feel like your grading practices are fair? Ask. If you can create an environment where students are free to give honest feedback, you can get valuable feedback on every area of your instruction.

The good educator is always trying to improve. The easiest and most efficient way is to ask the ones who are most important. The students will tell you what worked and what didn’t. That is more valuable than a PD session or reading a book.

Response From Douglas Reeves

Douglas Reeves is the author of more than 30 books and 100 articles on educational leadership, teaching, and student achievement. His videos and articles are all free downloads at CreativeLeadership.net. Doug Tweets @DouglasReeves and can be reached at DReeves@ChangeLeaders.com:

The worst practice here is the anonymous survey. These are character assassinations masquerading as “culture and climate” surreys. See the wonderful book by former Google data scientist and technology writer for The New York Times, Seth Stephens-Davidovitz, “Everybody Lies.” The best practice? Old-fashioned exit tickets—3x5 cards, with names optional but participation mandatory. I’ve watched teachers in collaborative teams share these small notes and draw very meaningful inferences about improving engagement and learning in their classes.

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Shaeley, Amy, Sheila, Jennie, Gary, and Doug, and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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