The Influence of Student Surveys

This NY Times piece from its technology blog is ostensibly about the innovative ideas coming from a tech startup that seeks to facilitate the surveying of students about their schools and teachers. From my reading, it looks like the company described is offering some great tools for schools to accomplish this. But I think there’s a bigger story here and something important for you to consider as you move into the classrooms.

First, I think many teachers feel a sense of ambivalence about student surveys: on the one hand, we recognize the importance of understanding how students are experiencing the classroom and our instruction; on the other hand, we recognize that sometimes students (a) don’t take the surveys seriously or (b) aren’t always capable of making sound evaluations of a teacher’s performance. I’ve had plenty of student surveys returned with suggestions such as “Have more pizza parties” or “We need less homework” that are really unhelpful evaluations of the classroom experience.

That said, it’s critical that we as teachers understand the way our efforts our being perceived by students. Their reactions become one more data point in the set of data that we should be collecting and analyzing as teachers in our efforts to evaluate our effectiveness. Along with admonitions for more parties, I’ve also had students make comments about how they felt I singled out or privileged certain students, how the assignments I gave were unhelpful or disconnected from the learning objectives for the course, or how I may have told students how to think rather than letting them arrive at their own conclusions. These comments have given me pause and forced me to evaluate important elements of my teaching. Sometimes, upon reflection, I can see truth in what the students have said; other times, I might decide that the student was being unfair or missing the whole picture. But even in the latter case, it has helped me immensely to know how my efforts were being perceived, and I’ve often made subtle but meaningful changes to ensure that misunderstandings were less likely.

So the software system described in the blog article is a great step towards honoring students’ voices in the educational process and towards ensuring that we as teachers are held accountable to our students–in ways that possibly matter more to them (and even to us, ultimately) as much as or even more than test scores. But you don’t need fancy software to conduct a survey of your students–there are plenty of templates and examples out there on the web that you could use. Or even a simple online survey created at SurveyMonkey could do the trick. The key here, no matter what form it might take, is to both show students that you care about their experience and utilize their feedback in tailoring your instruction.

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