Student surveys: meritorious and meritocratic, or meretricious and “meh”?

Investigative

Tracy K. Smith, in her final speech as U.S. Poet Laureate, discussed at length the commodification of learning and language in today’s world. One target of her critique: student surveys. “Rate your professor,” she sarcastically yet thoughtfully intoned: “Did she make the material relatable and easily digestible, or did you have to work to learn something?”

Kingswood Oxford is certainly no stranger to the student survey. Now practically ubiquitous in American high school classrooms, these evaluative forms ask students about areas of teacher performance such as use of technology, engagement, and approachability. For many students, completing them becomes almost an involuntary reflex. But where exactly did these surveys come from and how are they employed at KO?

Student surveys are a fairly modern invention, arising initially in college classrooms and promulgated through a contemporary wave of “student-centered teaching” reform. To those who adopted them, they provided a deceptively simple tool to aid in answering the administrative question of how best to gauge teacher effectiveness: Why not simply ask students for their thoughts? 

A 2012 study by the Measures of Effective Teaching Project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, strongly recommended the inclusion of student surveys as a part of a holistic teacher evaluation process, helping to usher in the tool’s widespread use in high school classrooms. KO’s Director of Teaching and Learning around that time, Asha Appel, took note of the development and created a survey that has been administered in classes ever since.

The survey, administered through Surveymonkey at the end of the first semester in most classes, follows a one-size-fits-all model. Every survey is composed of an identical series of statements upon which students can agree or disagree and may leave additional comments as they see fit. For example, the survey’s second statement asks students whether their “teacher offers a variety of assessments that fairly measure what they teach and on which I can demonstrate my learning.” 

Since the survey’s inception, these statements have undergone extensive scrutiny by administration, students, and faculty, but they have generally remained unchanged, owing to the strength and focus of the questions. “They really hit upon just about anything a teacher would want feedback on,” current Director of Teaching and Learning Heidi Hojnicki said. “If you cut any of the questions, you’d lose some potentially really valuable feedback.”

Once students fill out their surveys, the results for each individual teacher are compiled by Ms. Hojnicki. Each teacher receives a pie chart showing the numerical data for each answer along with any written comments by students, accompanied by a list of reflection questions to help teachers process their feedback and apply it to their teaching. 

“With what warm feedback [teachers are] getting,” Ms. Hojnicki said, they are asked whether they “are doing something intentional to create positive situations? And, you know, how can they continue to create those positive situations? And with the cooler feedback, you know, what is it that you want to share with your students? And then, like, what changes can you make, beginning even tomorrow?”

While at peer institutions or universities student surveys may play a role in tenure tracks or employment status and serve primarily to assist a school’s administration, KO employs surveys as a direct tool to help teachers improve their craft. “It’s really meant to be about individualized professional growth,” Ms. Hojnicki said.

For teachers who are currently reflecting on the latest round of surveys conducted in the past weeks, this goal is being met to varying degrees. “The students were very honest,” English teacher Matthew Golchin said, “and you can tell that they’re really committed to their learning.” Science teacher Graham Hegeman averred their utility. “I find that when students take them really seriously and give me a lot of feedback, they’re very valuable for my process,” he said.

Do students tend to take the surveys seriously? That might depend on what a “serious” survey entails. “Surveys aren’t really substantive unless we as students use the comments and actually explain our answers,” senior David Shi said. “And since it’s optional, a lot of people just don’t do it at all sometimes… myself included.” Of course, making those comments mandatory would simply cause the surveys to be perceived as even more of a chore. “I don’t really see any  definitive way around it because people are always going to be lazy,” he added.

Additionally, the motivation for students to make comments doesn’t always come from a student’s desire to strengthen their teacher’s pedagogy. “Honestly, students really only care when the teacher’s bad,” senior Daniel Raymond said. After all, outrage is an exceptionally potent engagement-creating emotion, a fact reinforced in our daily lives by the algorithms that determine what we are shown on social media. Freshman Maya Gerritts suggests a productive channeling of these passions during the comment process. “I feel like if you’re saying your teacher doesn’t, for example, engage with people in class enough, you should have to explain why that is so they can improve on it,” she said.

One idea to bolster student engagement with the surveys comes from junior Maggie Dwyer. “I think it would be beneficial if there was more open feedback to the students about what is done with our responses,” she said. “I think it would result in students giving more thoughtful answers if they had a clearer idea of how their answers would impact their classes in the school.” Other students echoed the importance of transparency in this process, stating that they appreciate teachers who take the time to briefly address student survey results during class.

Several students remarked on their appreciation for the survey’s anonymity as it allows them to give feedback that they might have difficulty expressing face-to-face. “Say your class is only lectures and you tell your teacher that you can’t really deal with only lectures. The best way to do that is probably through a survey because it’s not as direct,” Maya said. Junior Jhanvi Daddala agreed. “I think it’s a good way to tell your teachers things, especially because I don’t have the same free periods as my teachers,” she said.

On the other hand, some feedback may focus on particular experiences, rendering this anonymity purposeless in certain situations. “Student surveys are just one way to express your thoughts on a class,” David said. “If I have more personal or immediate concerns about a class, I can always talk to my teacher or advisor.”

An additional area of consideration brought up by students and teachers was the broad, uniform set of questions. For teachers, it can supply them with broad data while also enabling them to focus on particular areas in which they are seeking feedback. “One of the questions is about whether a teacher [helps students make meaningful connections to the content and skills of a course], and with math, I hope I’m bringing in enough problems where they do see how it’s tied to life outside of the classroom,” math teacher Kristen Valenti said. 

Student surveys certainly aren’t perfect. If all staffing decisions at KO were governed exclusively by student preferences, the quality of classroom instruction would certainly decline precipitously (although classes would be way less stressful). Rather, surveys serve to create a formal space for teachers to receive genuine feedback and for students to help facilitate their growth – or just click the 18 bubbles and move on, if they feel so inclined. It’s not a very glamorous process for anyone involved, but sometimes one has to put in a bit of work to learn something.