Effective Student Surveys and How They Inform Instruction

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by Scott Sterling, Learning Sciences International

Let’s have fun with a metaphor. If your school were a car dealership, whose job would everyone have? You, the teacher, are obviously a salesperson. In fact, many attempts have been made to equate education with sales. Your assistant principals might be service managers, always trying to make things run smoothly. The principal might be the sales manager, who has final say on the initiatives being undertaken at the dealership. That leaves the students, who are obviously the customers. And believe it or not, even in schools, the customer is always right.

Listen to Your Students

Student surveys are the new frontier in teacher evaluation. Some states, including Michigan, now mandate that students are surveyed about their teachers’ effectiveness, and those results are included in each teacher’s overall evaluation.

The prevailing wisdom 10 years ago was that students were too young or distracted to be able to accurately evaluate their teachers. But students as young as those in fourth grade can have an idea of the classroom climate, what their teachers do well, and what would make learning easier for them.

Compared to assessment data, which often is only available after students have left for the summer, and administrative evaluations, which only capture the classroom on a handful of particular days, the data from student surveys can be almost instantaneously available and reflect what has happened in the classroom.

A new Learning Sciences pilot in Pinellas County, Florida, uses student surveys in part to inform the ongoing professional development activities in which teachers in those schools participate throughout the year. Think of surveys as being a scoreboard in the classroom; they are always available and can dictate the next steps you take in your teaching practice.

Think of surveys as being a possible scoreboard in the classroom . . .

The Surveys Don’t Lie

Overall, a survey can be used to measure:

  • Students’ understanding of the subject matter
  • Their connections to subsequent content
  • Their engagement in learning
  • How safe and valued they feel in the classroom

Now, let’s ask the real question: How accurate can this data really be? According to the Measures of Effective Teaching Project, a partner of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, student survey data can be predictive of achievement data.

So if you’d like to really find out what your students think, use a survey. Here are some things to keep in mind when creating your own survey system:

  • Limit responses. Here is one place where multiple choice is your friend, especially with younger students.
  • Select the survey method that works best. Paper-based or online surveys show similar accuracy, so choose whichever option is easier for you and your school.
  • Consider the delivery. If students are concerned that you will see their responses, assign a student to collect the responses and deliver them to a third party, like an administrator.
  • Let them know the benefits. Make sure students know that survey results help teachers and administrators improve in their work. No one gets fired or in trouble.

Have you had success surveying your students? What data were generated? Share your thoughts with your colleagues in the comment section.

For much more on how Learning Sciences International approaches the student survey process, follow this link. And to find out details about the research in which Pinellas County is currently participating, visit our Research Services page.

Next week: Tech Tools for Teacher Collaboration

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