My student survey journey started small. Before I ordered books for the next year, I was curious to know if my current students really enjoyed the ones I'd picked for them to read. So on one of the last days of school, I handed out a very simple student survey. What book did you like best this year? What book did you like least? Then, just for kicks, I threw in one more question: Is there anything else you'd like to tell me about this year's class?
Before I handed out the survey in class, I told my students I was very interested in their ideas and that they could help me plan for next year. I asked them to be honest and assured them they wouldn't hurt my feelings if they didn't like something we'd read. To put some students at ease, they were allowed to fill out the survey anonymously.
The Surprising Feedback
When I tallied the results from my five classes, it was gratifying to see that their favorite book by far was To Kill a Mockingbird, which is my favorite too. Their least favorite was Steinbeck's The Pearl, which is a book I found to be as boring as they did but taught because it was on the eighth grade reading list.
It was their answers to the third question that surprised and intrigued me. They were honest, lengthy, and filled with advice and opinions. "I wish we did more writing," said one student. "We should change groups more often. I got stuck with people who didn't want to do any work," said another. "Ms. B [a substitute teacher] is mean. Don't ask for her, please." "Why do we have to learn poetry? It's stupid." (This opinion was shared by several students!) Many signed their names and added comments like, "Have a great summer! Thanks for everything!"
Student Survey 2.0
The information about the books was helpful, but I was really interested in delving a little more into students' opinions and insights. So the next year, I devised a longer questionnaire with 10 Lickert-type questions ("On a scale of 1-5, one being 'strongly agree' and five being 'strongly disagree,' please respond to the following statements"). I included statements like "I would like to read more nonfiction" and "I would like to do a play in class."
This time, I included three open-ended questions:
- The best thing about this class was ...
- The worst thing about this class was ...
- Something to think about for next year is ...
Once again, before I handed out the questionnaire, I gave my little speech about needing their help and being honest. This time I tapped into a trove of helpful information about homework, class discussions, field trips, and more.
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Each year I tweaked the survey a little more. Once, I simply gave my students a couple of sheets of paper and asked them to write a letter to next year's students telling them what they could expect in my class. "Do not come in late to her class," one student wrote. "She hates it." "Do not talk when she's talking," another said. "If you tip your chair back and she sees you, she'll make you stand for the rest of the period." My personal favorite was "She is tough, but she is fair." Another year, I moved the survey to the classroom computers and gave the kids a few days to complete it. Computers preserved students' anonymity since I couldn't recognize their handwriting, but their comments were truncated because few were competent typists. We returned to paper.
Letting Students Speak
Every year, I gave a survey/questionnaire in some form. And every year, I was impressed by my students' honesty, humor, and generosity. It was clear that they loved being asked their opinion, and they took my request seriously. Their answers helped me grow as a teacher because if a suggestion was mentioned by several students, perhaps I needed to reconsider what I was doing. Students told me that reading assignments were sometimes too long, that oral book reports were boring to listen to, and that they liked sharing their writing, and I made adjustments accordingly.
I came to look forward to my students' comments every year, but I recognize that some teachers may not want to subject themselves to what might turn out to be unfair criticism, particularly when they can't respond. Of course, no teacher can expect to be every student's favorite, so you have to learn to focus on the constructive feedback. But if a significant number of kids tell you they didn't like your class, you ought to take a hard look at what you're doing.
While I taught middle school students, I believe that surveys can be modified for younger students. Even third graders can tell you what they liked best and least about the school year. Older students will likely have more to say if asked, but what's important, I think, is to explain to your younger students why you want their opinion and how helpful it can be.
As teachers, we may get feedback from administrators or peers who observe our classes. Sometimes those observations are simply for improvement and sometimes they're for evaluation. This feedback is usually helpful, but the focus is a particular moment in time. It's insights from your students, who have been with you all year, that are invaluable.