Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Student Evaluation Surveys: Keys to Successful Implementation

Do we need one more survey?
Hmmm...good question...

This past Sunday night I was able to get in on #iaedchat (Iowa education chat) on Twitter again after having missed for several weeks. It's a great group of educators over there--many from Iowa, but not all--who are passionate and thoughtful and want to talk about things that matter in education today. This week's chat was about the role of surveys in education.

Surveys are a great way to collect information...if they are done right. As we discussed together, we noted that there are several possible failure points in regard to surveys:

  • Some are too long, which results in low response rates.
  • Some are poorly constructed, which results in misleading information.
  • Sometimes information is collected, but no action is taken on the results. This makes participants less likely to be enthusiastic about future surveys.
  • Sometimes the results are used in punitive ways that don't actually help the situation.
  • Surveys are often made anonymous, in the hope that this will result in more honest feedback without fear of repercussions. But this might actually result in more ranting, rather than constructive, actionable feedback.
  • Surveys don't feel very relational. Sometimes it's better to just have face-to-face conversations with the interested parties.
  • There is such a thing as "survey fatigue"--people just get sick of filling out survey after survey!
But even with some shortcomings, we generally agreed that surveys can still be useful for garnering information and opinions in a concise, relatively straightforward way.

When I was a middle school teacher, I regularly surveyed my students about how things were going in my classes. This wasn't mandated by my principal or the school board; I just wanted their feedback. I figure that the students know as much about my teaching as anyone else: they are actually in the classroom with me every day! And while they may not be trained educational professionals, the can provide insights into how my teaching practice is actually unfolding.

Three keys to successful implementation of student surveys:
  1. Ask questions that get at what you want to find out. This might sound obvious, but unfortunately, it might not be. Recognize that your students are not trained professionals, so don't use jargon. Just ask straightforward questions that are targeted to the information you hope to glean.
  2. Keep it short and sweet. The survey doesn't need to be long to be informative. Try and zero in on what you believe is most important. 
  3. Help students understand what they are doing. Students need to understand what this survey is for, and why you are asking the questions. If it isn't clear that you are asking for their feedback to help you reflect on your teaching practice, the comments they provide are not likely to be helpful.
I always explained it to my students something like, "I am always trying to get better at teaching. Since you are here with me every day, you know how I teach very well--probably better than almost anyone else--so I really want to hear your ideas about what is working well...and not so well. So please be honest, but also try to be helpful. Specific examples of what is working or not working are more helpful than comments like, 'I love this class!' or 'You are a terrible teacher.'"

Notice that in the above, I'm actively asking for their observations both positive and negative. Certainly it feels good to hear that things are going well, but constructive criticism can be great fodder for reflection. Just be sure that you are ready and willing to hear it if you are asking for it!

Here is one version of the survey I used to use with my middle school science students. It gets at the information I wanted to hear from my students. The first page is intended to be an easy "in" to getting the kids to start thinking and sharing, and the second page really gets at the questions I wanted answered. (I didn't really explain it to the kids that way though. And the answers on the first page were quite helpful for me as well...)

You'll note that this survey was a hard copy I had students complete with pencil and paper. In this day and age of 1:1 technology programs, I would actually do this survey online. The forms feature in GoogleDrive would be a fantastic way to collect this kind of information!

The biggest thing I want to emphasize for you is that you shouldn't survey your students if you aren't willing to rethink your teaching practice. You will get feedback, and you may be challenged to consider changes to things you've been doing for years. But I highly encourage you to survey your students! The information you gain can be immensely helpful for helping you reflect and grow as an educator!

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