Why student feedback can make you a better teacher

By Ben Barnett, CEO of Loop

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Are you tapping into one of the best predictors of teacher effectiveness? 

It’s something many teachers ignore or even fear despite facing it every day in their classrooms.

Let’s turn the spotlight on your students - it’s their feedback which is essential for your continuing professional development (CPD). 

Harnessing student feedback on what and how you teach is a win-win for both sides. As a teacher, you’re getting near-real-time personalised feedback on your teaching. That allows you to reflect on your practice to identify how to improve it.

Meanwhile, students develop and refine their skills to help with their future learning. They’re learning systematically through reflection and articulation.

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What’s all the fuss about feedback?

Giving students feedback on their learning is entrenched in our teaching system. Increasingly, educators are differentiating this feedback, including through summative and formative assessments. 

Students’ test gains don’t offer the insights you might assume. You could have a class that moves ahead in leaps and bounds one year, but the next year is assigned a couple of students with behavioural issues. Down go those grades as a result. Those changes in your class make-up relate more to the test scores than your teaching effectiveness. Student surveys are much less volatile.

When you test students, the scores only show when they’re not learning, but aren’t you curious about why? Just monitoring students’ scores won’t improve your effectiveness as a teacher. 

Therefore, just as we differentiate teaching for students, so too must senior education leaders source differentiated feedback to educators about their practices to improve teacher quality. Harnessing student voice is a mechanism to do this and can be built into your professional development plan. This sees teachers themselves modelling being a learner in classrooms. That happens when they actively seek feedback on their performance from students, such as through surveys. Research shows it can identify your strengths and weaknesses. 

Reflective practice is becoming a mantra of quality educators.

 

Evidence base for student feedback effectiveness

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation studied 3,000 teachers in seven US cities to find out what made teachers effective or not. The Measures of Effective Teaching Project investigated students’ test scores and videoed thousands of hours of classroom activity. Students were also surveyed to help predict test scores. Its final report, released in 2013, showed that because students were reflecting over months, not doing a one-off-observation, they were better than adults at evaluating their teachers. 

Writing about the project, Harvard University researcher, Ronald Ferguson, says well-crafted student surveys can “play an important role in suggesting directions for professional development and also in evaluating teacher effectiveness”. He argues that student surveys should be one of the measures repeated on a regular basis to evaluate teacher quality.

Ferguson, a senior lecturer in the Graduate School of Education, says student surveys as one of a suite of measures to evaluate teachers actually helps overcome the issue of reliability and validity of students’ responses.

 

How the concept of garnering student feedback evolved

Student evaluation of teaching started in the Northern American tertiary education sector in the late 1960s amid some backlash from teachers. The key tool used was a brief standardised rating form. Students rated on a scale of one to five the characteristics of teachers and courses. It covered how clear teachers’ explanations were, their enthusiasm and availability and how fair the exams were. 

Did it work? A survey found that more than two-thirds of faculty teaching staff said student evaluations of them were useful and improved their teaching. Research suggests that even informal student feedback can be used to promote learning by improving students’ understanding of fundamental skills, engagement, and the quality of their work. 

More recently, Australian-based education researcher, Professor John Hattie, listed the factors related to student achievement. His latest compilation, issued in 2018, features 252 influences and effect sizes. These synthesise findings from more than 1,600 meta-analyses spanning 95,000 studies involving 300 million students. Hattie coined the term ‘visible learning’, and it’s become his shingle for books and guides on his work.

Top of his list is collective teacher efficacy. Implicit is the metric of student feedback. And this is where it gets interesting. Teacher attributes with the “potential to considerably accelerate student achievement” are:

  • Teacher clarity
  • Teacher credibility
  • Teacher estimates of achievement, and
  • Micro teaching/video review of lessons

Best placed to assess those attributes are those who are in front of those teachers day in and day out - their students.

Asking students to do so involves them in the metacognitive activity of reflective learning. They become more aware of the best practices they followed to learn more effectively. 

Student feedback may well be the missing link to improving your teaching. Here’s how to make it part of your practice.

 

5 questions that matter

The Gates Foundation study finessed five tried-and-true question-statements to work out teacher effectiveness, according to The Atlantic. They focus on teachers controlling the classroom and making it a challenging, yet enjoyable, place for students to be. Here they are:

  1. Students in this class treat the teacher with respect.
  2. My classmates behave the way my teacher wants them to.
  3. Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time.
  4. In this class, we learn a lot almost every day.
  5. In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes.

And for primary school students, there are these alternatives:

  1. This class is a happy place for me to be.
  2. Sometimes I get into trouble at school.
  3. Some kids learn things a lot faster than I do
  4. I like the things that we are learning in this class.
  5. My teacher doesn’t let people give up when the work gets hard.

But, before you ask whichever set of questions, take a moment to consider what you expect to see in the data. How do you think students will answer? What areas do you think will spark your curiosity?

Ready to quiz your students? These questions are simple and quick to administer. Your students’ responses might prompt you to explore more. Here are some options.

 

How student feedback equates to PD

Whether you opted for the five-question quiz or went deeper to garner student feedback, the key is what you do with the responses. Change nothing about your practices, and you’ve learnt zilch. It’s all about reflective practice to find which focus areas could yield you the best impact for students. Think in terms of the quadrant: low-impact, not actionable; low-impact, highly actionable; high impact, not actionable; and where you want to be, high impact, highly actionable.

Evelyn Rebollar, a US high school teacher who's been tapping into student feedback, says it’s transformed her classroom for her and her students. It’s become an “environment of constant revision through praise, criticism and for those who embrace failure”. In short, it’s helping her do her job better. 

Most teacher registration authorities require early career and accredited educators to notch ‘teacher-identified’ professional learning. They’re specific activities you do that count towards registration/accreditation. Collecting and using student feedback could tick the box for practitioner research and reflecting on teaching practice.

 

Tech solutions

It can be time-consuming chasing students’ feedback via paper-based surveys and collating the results. As well, asking students verbally in class (via Zoom or otherwise) for their feedback can be confronting for both parties. 

Using digital technology is a way to allow students the option to offer their views in their own time, online, and if they wish, anonymously. Tools like Loop make collecting student feedback fast, easy and offer teachers the ability to make feedback anonymous. 

Getting started with student feedback needn't be complicated. Log into your Loop account to see the suggested model questions and find out what you can learn from your students.

 

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References

Reeves, J L, Gunter, G A & Lacey, C (2017). Mobile Learning in Pre-Kindergarten: Using Student Feedback to Inform Practice. Educational Technology & Society 20(1), pp37-44

 Hatch, E. (2020). Going Beyond “It Sounds Good”: Developing Student Capacity to Give Meaningful Feedback. General Music Today, National Association for Music Education (USA). Vol 33(3), pp29-35, April 1

 Stott, A, Zamoyski, & Alberti, H. (2018). Word clouds: presenting student feedback to clinical teachers. Medical Education. November 1.

 Mitchell, E. (2013). Reflective course construction: An analysis of student feedback and its role in curricular design. Education for Information, 30, pp144-166, September.

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