Making Student Feedback Work

New advice on building a culture of feedback and making it meaningful for teachers

November 2, 2017
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The benefits of student feedback are deep and wide — but not always recognized.

Students have a comprehensive view of how their teachers educate and motivate. Student evaluations can be collected cheaply, quickly, and regularly, giving teachers the opportunities to make real-time adjustments to their teaching. Teachers may actually learn about their students from feedback questionnaires, too — how they learn, whom they know well in the class, and with whom they work best.

Students benefit from this process as well. When schools create a culture of feedback, they “send a strong signal to students that they care about their point of view, while also creating opportunities to model how to productively receive and respond to feedback,” according to educational researcher Carly Robinson, a Ph.D. student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

When schools create a culture of feedback, they "send a strong signal to students that they care about their point of view, while also creating opportunities to model how to productively receive and respond to feedback."

Research and insights from Robinson and educational psychologist Hunter Gehlbach of the University of California, Santa Barbara, show how schools can get the most out of student feedback, and how principals can help teachers get on board with using it — creating a more communicative school culture for all.

Getting Started: Making Student Feedback Work

One very real caveat to using student feedback in schools is that students aren’t automatically fair evaluators. A hyper fourth-grader or a sullen sophomore won’t always be particularly just or perceptive. However, with the right scaffolding, most students can be more helpful than many educators assume.

Gehlbach offers advice for teachers on how to solicit meaningful feedback:

  • Before administering any surveys, express to students that you as a teacher will only improve from their honest answers. Relay very directly that this feedback is important to you.
  • After collecting answers, share some of the findings with the class, letting them know how you are thinking about using this data to improve. “This process builds a lot of trust between teachers and students,” says Gehlbach.
  • Frequent, quick, informal questionnaires — “exit tickets” — can get students accustomed to providing feedback, and may be easier for students to complete than longer surveys.
  • To gain more-detailed, schoolwide feedback, principals may want to consult with experts. Education data companies such as Panorama Education, for which Gehlbach is director of research, “will help schools get high quality survey content, advice on the nuances of survey administration, uniformity in what gets measured across the school, [and] thoughtful reporting.” Researchers from Panorama and the Harvard Graduate School of Education launched a comprehensive student survey tool in 2014, grounded in rigorous methodology, that captures student assessment across 19 key topics.

A New Study: Getting Teachers on Board

Even when student evaluations are fair, teachers may feel uneasy about them.

New research from Robinson and Gehlbach, along with Ilana Finefter-Rosenbluh, Chris Benshoof, and Jack Schneider, offers insight into how principals can get teachers on board. In a recent study, the researchers surveyed 309 teachers from grades K–12 and from 44 states and the District of Columbia, asking how they felt about students evaluating them.

The researchers found that teachers were significantly more likely to be supportive of the idea of students evaluating teachers if they were first asked if teachers should be allowed to evaluate principals. It’s a common psychological move; when people realize they have thoughts or judgments that are inconsistent, they change one to alleviate the tension.

Most teachers believe that their feedback on their principals should be respected — a line of thought that helps them acknowledge that their students’ feedback on them should be valued, too.

Key Takeaway

Teachers are more likely to be open to the idea of students evaluating teachers if they are first asked whether teachers should evaluate principals.

Strategies for School Leaders: Creating a Culture of Feedback

Principals may want to use the findings from this study literally, or they can extrapolate broader lessons, explain Gehlbach and Robinson.

  • If school leaders are trying to gauge how their teachers feel about student feedback, it may be helpful to actually administer a survey that leads with questions about their opinions on teachers evaluating administrators. Says Robinson, “Our findings suggest that this sequencing of questions will make teachers feel more positive toward the possibility of using student perception surveys.”
  • On the other hand, it may be enough to simply facilitate a discussion during a staff meeting about the value of teacher feedback for administrators, before then transitioning into a discussion about the value of student feedback for teachers.
  • More generally, principals can simply lead by example by frequently soliciting feedback from their teachers. “This action sends a clear signal that administrators, too, are excited to use feedback to learn and improve,” says Gehlbach. This “culture of feedback” demonstrates to teachers and students alike that their opinions matter, and that trial and error and taking advice are “all part of a healthy improvement process for everyone.”
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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.