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Teaching Opinion

Response: Ways to Have Students Evaluate Classes

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 28, 2019 18 min read
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(This is Part One in a three-part series)

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?

Student evaluations of classes and teachers are common in colleges but not as prevalent in K-12 schools.

This series will consider the advantages and disadvantages of using them with our students. Today, we’ll hear 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.

I’m a big advocate of using student evaluations. I learn a lot from them each semester and post the results of them each semester on my Websites of the Day blog—warts and all! You can see the various forms I’ve used, what students have said, and other related resources at The Best Posts On Students Evaluating Classes (and Teachers).

Response From Roxanna Elden

Roxanna Elden’s first book, See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers, has long been a staple in school districts and training programs. Her recently released novel, Adequate Yearly Progress, captures teaching with insight, humor, and heart. The story follows several teachers at an urban high school as their professional lives impact their personal lives and vice versa:

Should you ask students to evaluate your teaching? Yes and no. On the one hand, an anonymous survey is your chance to ask students the questions you’ve been asking yourself all year. Does everyone in your class feel respected? Was there something they wished you’d noticed? Is that joke you tell every morning really as funny as you think it is? Honest answers to these questions can save you from repeating mistakes.

That being said, teachers get encouraged to ask students for feedback a lot—maybe more than they should, considering that there are a lot of ways it can go wrong. Here are a few words of caution before you ask a roomful of students for their unvarnished opinions.

Teaching is in some ways a position of power, but in other ways, it’s an incredibly vulnerable position. One of the big arguments for getting student feedback is that it “empowers” students. This sounds good. After all, who doesn’t want to empower students? The answer is ... maybe you. At least right at this moment. Teachers spend much of their time outnumbered, at the front of a room, doing the thing Jerry Seinfeld says people fear more than death: public speaking. In these ways, it’s almost like a less funny version of standup comedy. And no one tells standup comics to go onstage and say, “Please, everyone, share your thoughts on how I’m doing up here. All at once, if possible.”

Giving constructive feedback is a skill that the average K-12 student is not a champ at. Bosses who give feedback to their employees get extensive training on how to do this. Teachers, too, get communication pointers in professional development. It’s safe to assume your students have attended none of these trainings. This means that while you’ll likely get some useful feedback, you’ll also get plenty of comments that aren’t particularly helpful.

One comment can mess with your head. And you’re asking for a lot more than one comment. This is coming from someone who, even after 10 years of fairly confident teaching, once left my students’ end-of-year surveys on my kitchen table for a full month without opening them. It took that many full nights of sleep to work up the courage, even though I knew they would be mostly positive. This is not that unusual—especially in a job as personal as teaching. With that in mind, beware of asking for feedback as part of a desperate mid-October teaching makeover. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by a tidal wave of opinions—especially if there are some hurtful comments mixed in. Sure, there will probably be some positive reviews, too, but are you really going to remember those?

Absorbing feedback takes time. If you can’t wait until the end of the year, at least wait until Friday. And for the love of all that is holy, do not sit down and read a stack of surveys at your desk while students watch! Plan time to open them in private, when you have a few days to absorb the advice and recover from any bad reviews. The best way to use student evaluations is to consider them as a whole, not react to specific answers in the moment. You’ll need time to think about how to put all that feedback to good use. And, maybe, a trip to happy hour.

Response From Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D.

Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D., provides technical assistance for school improvement with a specific focus on equity. He works with districts around the country to identify root causes of achievement gaps and formulate pedagogy- and policy-based efforts to redress the underperformance of vulnerable student populations. Follow him on Twitter at @DrYemiS:

Should teachers encourage student evaluations of their classes? YES! Emphatically and absolutely, yes they should! Beyond the modeling of a growth-mindset and inquiry-focused attitudes toward work, teachers who collect students’ evaluations of their teaching are more likely to determine specifically what is, and what is not, effective about their practice. ... The more relevant question in the matter of student evaluations of their classes and teaching is: What exactly should the students be evaluating?

The best way to design your evaluation is to think like a researcher. The number-one rule of psychometrics is to measure as directly as possible what you most want to know. Good measures limit the proximal nature of data so that they represent as clearly and succinctly as possible the cause and correlation of inputs and outputs. As a teacher, the most important information you should seek from your students is about their learning as in, Are students effectively learning what matters most? Every teaching practice should be adjusted accordingly based on your understanding of what your students are learning and what specifically is supporting their learning. You have to ask the right questions in order to collect useful data, and to that end, the single most consequential question I regularly return to in my planning is: What do I want my students to understand?

Let’s be clear about what it actually means to understand. To understand is not the same as to memorize. To understand is to know something clearly enough that it changes how you think and what you do with relation to the understanding. That change is the essence of knowing. Understanding is not even the same as remembering. We remember a lot that we don’t understand. To understand means to have some firsthand cognitive experience with the concepts, themes, issues and debates, paradoxes, and perspectives that define the understanding.

Once we are clear about what it means to understand, we can then shift attention to the question of, “How can we know if students understand?” During planning, explicitly consider, “What key words/phrases do we anticipate students will refer to in describing/explaining their enduring understanding?” In order to glean the information we want to know, we must clarify the research tool (in this case the question we will ask to students) we use so that it effectively captures what we seek to elucidate. A good research question is designed with careful attention to the wording, timing, and manner in which the evidence is collected. To that end, I like to ask students: Given what you’ve learned about [insert the topic/content here], what will you still know one year from now?

When I ask students what they will remember, I am more likely to get responses about the activities of the learning experiences. But when I ask students what they will know, I am more likely to get responses to get to the heart of their conceptual understandings relative to the topics and content area taught. In some cases, I will ask first what they will remember in order to jog their memory—but the knowing is much more important to me. The “one year from now” element of the question moves the student forward in time to strip away superfluous aspects of the learning experience so as to uncover the core of their understandings. In their answers, we can find evidence of the misconceptions or powerful connections that students experienced. These help us to make adjustments in our practices so that we can better develop lessons that allow students the most productive opportunities to sit with the most significant parts of the learning.

It isn’t always necessary to survey your entire universe of students. A survey of a random sample of students or even a more intentional survey of subsets of your students (i.e., a few highly-, moderately, and minimally-engaged kiddos) can lead to insights about our practice. Give students the option to either record or write responses to the question and search for the alignment of their language with the key terms and phrases you’ve considered as evidence of students’ understanding. In some cases, what they say or write may be an indicator of missed opportunities, and in other cases, what they say/write may reveal deeper/broader learning than you might have anticipated. Students hold the keys to our most critical insights about our practice, and the evidence we collect from them should get as close to the heart of the matter as possible. The assessments that matter most to us teachers are not so much about how they enjoyed the learning experience as it is about the extent to which they connected with the learning in the ways we most hoped for. To have students evaluate our teaching in that way should be an essential element of all instruction.

Response From Kathy Dyer

Kathy Dyer is manager of innovation and learning, professional learning at NWEA. Kathy has more than 25 years in education, many spent designing and facilitating learning opportunities for educators. Coaching teachers and school leadership on getting better at what they do is her passion. Follow Kathy on Twitter at @kdyer13 or read her blogs on Teach. Grow. Learn:

What if we rephrased this question from, “Should teachers encourage student evaluations of their classes and their teaching?” to “Should teachers provide learners the opportunity to offer feedback of their teaching in ways other than students’ grades?” My initial response to this question was “Why wouldn’t we?”

John Hattie (2009) reminded us that feedback isn’t just spoken or written from you to students or even students to students. He said that feedback is most powerful when students provide it to you. That feedback takes on many forms, and grades are but one. Student grades are a form of evaluating the teaching.

When I think about this topic, I am reminded of an article by Matthew Dick in Educational Leadership (2005) entitled “Show Me the Way.” While he was talking about videotaping his classrooms so students could “objectively witness and assess their own learning process,” an additional benefit surfaced: Students and teachers together explored ways to improve both the teaching and learning processes. Think about it as digital feedback.

Teachers equipped with growth mindsets use a variety of strategies to collect feedback on their teaching from learners. Some of these strategies include:

  • Recording lessons and spending 30 minutes reviewing what happened during a lesson—what worked/didn’t work for learners

  • Having students reflect (at the end of assessments, units, and class) about what was challenging or confusing and what you could have done to make it less challenging/confusing

  • Distributing short surveys either during class or online asking students what’s working/not working and for any advice they have for you. Questions might include:

    • Is there something you wish I knew about this class that would make me a better teacher?
    • Is there a habit I need to change or improve to be a better teacher?
    • What’s one thing I could have done to help you learn more?
    • Would you like to tell me about something I’m doing well to encourage me?

  • Having a “feedback to the teacher” box so students can share anonymous notes anytime encourages just-in-time feedback.

  • Using journals that you already have in place makes it natural and easy for students to offer feedback on instruction, particularly if you give learners a prompt, such as, “What’s one thing I could change when I teach that would support you as a learner?” You get feedback, and students build self-regulation.

If we consider who your “customers” are (learners), getting feedback (evaluation) from this group seems important. And who knows, it might even make your job easier.

Response From Dr. Sheila M. Wilson, Ed.D.

Dr. Sheila M. Wilson, Ed.D., is an educator with over 28 years in diverse educational settings in elementary, secondary, and at the university level. She is currently employed with the Virginia Beach City public schools and has served at Regent University as an adjunct professor in the Teacher Leader program. Dr. Wilson is a conference presenter and has written a feature article for VAASCD’s online newsletter. She has recently launched an educational blog with the aim to empower educators to amplify their impact called Teaching With Intention or follow her on Twitter @wilson1sheila:

Ever heard the adage about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes? Well, there is so much to learn when you are able to look at a situation through another’s lens. This same principle applies as it relates to students lending their voice to the conversation on effective classroom practice. There has been much talk about student voice, how it increases student agency and greater autonomy in learning. Well, keeping that same mindset, what about lending student voice to inform effective classroom practice? As a teacher working with students daily, I think having students evaluate instruction could yield very candid insights, multiple perspectives, and improved practice. After all, if students aren’t afforded the opportunity to weigh in on what is engaging to them in the learning process, we are missing out on valuable feedback that could amplify learning outcomes and serve as a driver for improved student success.

This whole idea of student observation/evaluation is nothing new. Utilizing research dating back to the 1990s, I found that a group of educators and social critics noted the exclusion of student voices in informing effective instruction and practice. Additionally, building on the re-emergence of the concept of student voice and choice as part of the current conversation in school districts throughout the country, I began a conversation with my administrator on the value of student voice with regard to classroom practice. Finding validity in hearing from students, we decided to move forward with what we called Student Learning Walks (SLW) during the 2017-18 school year. After several meetings to create a SLW committee and determine our focus, discuss the design of the process, and to develop an observation rubric, we were ready to begin!

We launched our Student Learning Walks with a team of nine 5th graders. The students were a diverse group academically, socially, and culturally and were teacher-selected after indicating interest in participating in the process. These students met with our SLW committee to learn more about the SLW process, their expectations, and their training schedule. From there, students were trained on look-fors in conducting classroom observations. Once trained, students were assigned to three teams of three. Each student was interviewed prior to participating in the learning walks. The focus of the interviews was to glean what students thought they’d see and learn through the SLW process. For teachers, participation in the SLW process was voluntary. Student teams created an observation schedule and visited classes with one adult from the SLW committee. Following each observation, the SLW team left a note with the teacher that included a positive thought and a thank you for participating in the process.

After concluding the student learning walks we gained useful insights.

  1. Students identified common practices in classrooms and found greater value in them because they determined the consistency as an indicator of importance (i.e., learning targets, anchor charts).

  2. Placement of important information was most effective if it was at their eye level.

  3. The use of color in writing key vocabulary terms made them more memorable.

  4. Teachers who varied their pitch and spoke with expression were more engaging.

We found the SLW process to be very useful and we plan to continue the process in the upcoming 2018-19 school year. Our focus was and will continue to be utilizing student voice/input by having students contribute to the conversation on what effective instruction looks like from the student perspective. Remember, student voice matters!

Response From Madeline Whitaker Good

Madeline Whitaker Good has taught elementary and middle school and is currently a middle school teacher in Springfield, Mo. She is a co-author of Your First Year:

I answer this with a wholehearted YES. Getting student feedback about your classroom can be so incredibly enlightening. They sit in your class more than anyone else. They see your teaching style more than anyone else. They do your assignments and activities more than anyone else. Many times, they will be honest with you more than anyone else. This is why I cannot encourage all teachers enough to get feedback from their students. I do it at the end of every quarter and I can tell that it has helped improve my teaching immensely.

The method I have found that works best is using a Google Doc that I create with a list of prechosen questions. Some of them are on a 1-5 scale (e.g., “How much do you think you have learned in this class?”), while others are open-ended (e.g., “What do you think could be improved about this class?”). I also give students the option for it to be anonymous. This way, they can be entirely candid in their responses if they are nervous to say something they think would upset me or hurt my feelings.

I do have a few tips for those doing this for the first time.

Tip #1 - Remember that you cannot make every student happy. In some of my feedback forms, I have found that some students love a certain style of assignment I give, while others hate it. I cannot make everyone happy, and that is OK. Some parts of how a classroom is run is based on personal preference, and since we work with human beings, there will be a lot of preferences sitting in your room each day! I don’t expect to love every single aspect of my job every day, so it is OK if students don’t get everything they want in every class, either. What matters most is that you are using the feedback to improve your class as much as possible, but that doesn’t mean every student will be enamored with your class every day. And that is OK!

Tip #2 - Share with students how they could be most effective in the feedback they give. Since I teach 8th graders, I see this as an important life skill when it comes to getting change that they want. If they say vague things like “I hate this class,” I am less likely to make the change that they are asking for. Instead, I teach them that they need to be able to be specific about things that they both like and dislike and provide justification with their responses. The better the feedback they give, the better my response will be able to be.

Tip #3 - Don’t take everything personally. I know this is a hard one, but sometimes kids are having a bad day, and the best way they can deal with it is by filling out a hateful feedback form. I always have one each quarter that fits into this category. The first time I did this, I really took it personally, trying to figure out which student may have said those things and how I can make my classroom better for that student. As time went on, however, I learned that general trends are so much more important when it comes to feedback, and one blaringly hurtful or negative student rarely represents the rest of the class. Now if you get feedback that is consistently negative, that probably means you may need to change something in your class. If it is just one or two students (especially if you teach secondary since you will most likely have over a hundred students filling this out), however, don’t lose sleep over it.

Thanks to Roxanna, Adeyemi, Kathy, Sheila, and Madeline for their contributions!

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