Dangerous Minds: The Siren Song of the Student Feedback Survey

I should start by saying I’ve always been a fan of giving an anonymous survey to students at the end of the year. The last chapter of See Me After Class includes a long list of survey questions that teachers may want to ask, and I’ve asked all of them with my own students at various times.

That being said, teachers are often encouraged to ask students for feedback about their teaching as if this is unquestionably good advice in every situation, and it’s definitely not that. I’ve spent nearly two decades having confidential conversations with teachers in various forms. And I’ve heard far too many stories from teachers who asked students for feedback and, instead of gaining the valuable insight they’d hoped for, ended up feeling utterly flattened by the experience.

With that in mind, here are some notes of caution before you ask a room full of students for their unvarnished opinions.

Consider your reasons for asking.

Before you decide to solicit feedback from your students, take the time to think through what you’re hoping to find out and make sure this is the right tool for the job. Did a major new class project not quite go as planned? A survey to gather students’ responses to the project might tell you something useful about how to improve it. Do you feel that you’ve totally lost your students a month into the school year, and you’re desperately searching for something to reignite their interest as part of a desperate mid-October teaching makeover? That’s probably not a realistic outcome for any survey.

In some ways, teaching is a position of power. In other ways, it’s a position of vulnerability.

One of the big arguments for collecting student feedback is that it empowers students. And what kind of teacher wouldn’t want to empower students? The answer is. . . maybe you. At least not right this second. In fact, a less morally-loaded way of asking this question would be, is this a good moment to shift the balance of power away from you and toward your students? It’s okay if the answer is no. 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, teaching is almost like a less funny version of standup comedy. And no one tells a standup comic 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. The average K-12 student has not had much practice at this skill.

Bosses who are required to give feedback to their employees often receive extensive training on how to do this. Teachers, too, learn 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. This isn’t enough of a downside to make surveys a universally bad idea. However, it does mean you’ll want to take steps up front to make this feedback manageable and usable. Do your best to ask questions that will lead to the level of detail you want. And decide in advance what you plan to do with answers that seem off-topic, jokey, unrealistic, hostile, or just hard to interpret.

Remember that one comment can mess with your head. And you’re asking for a lot more than one comment.

This is coming from someone who once left my students’ end-of-year surveys on my kitchen table, unopened, for a full week. This was after years of confident teaching, and in spite of the fact that I expected mostly positive feedback. It just took me that many full nights of sleep to work up the courage to read whatever these kids might have to say. Teaching is a relationship-based job in which even the professional parts are intensely personal. 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 positive reviews, too. But are you really going to remember those?

Your students deserve privacy, confidentiality, and dignity. So should you.

In order for the feedback process to be effective, students need to know their answers won’t be held against them at grading time. One way to reassure them of this, especially with end-of-year surveys, is to have students fold their anonymous surveys in half as they finish and place them in a manila folder. Then, in front of everyone, you or a trusted classmate should staple around the edges of that folder and promise that you will not open those staples until the last grade has been submitted. And, when you say it, mean it. As a related courtesy, you should also ask that students not show one another their surveys while working. Explain that it will really mess with your head if students are discussing their answers in front of you, knowing you can’t see them for days or weeks. (And, when you say that, I guarantee you’ll also mean it.)

Absorbing feedback takes time.

If you can’t wait until the end of the year to give out a survey, 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 are present! Plan a time to open them in private, when you have a few days without classes to absorb the advice and recover from any bad reviews. And before you conduct any survey, make sure you’re not putting yourself in a position where you’ll need to implement changes right away based on the results.  You’ll need time to think about how to put all that feedback to good use.

Make sure you can see the forest for the trees.

The best way to use student evaluations is to consider them as a whole, not react to specific answers in the moment. While it’s likely there will be a comment or two that sticks with you in ways you hadn’t expected, no one student’s answer is going to be the key that unlocks a problem. It’s not even necessarily likely to reflect the views of many other students. Try to find ways to objectively search for patterns in the responses you’re getting.

Collecting and processing student feedback is something I’ve been helping teachers do for years and can now assist with on an individual basis in a session of See Me After Class Office Hours. Office Hours are 45-minute, confidential one-on-one Zoom or phone sessions tailored to any teaching-related topic you want to talk about—including this one.

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