Saturday, June 19, 2010

Feedback from Students

At one point during my teacher training, someone wisely said, "if you want honest and effective feedback, ask your students." I honestly can't remember the context of this advice, or even the person who said it, but I remember my initial thoughts were, "Yes, that's so true! My students are with me day in and day out! For the good lessons and the bad! They are the ones who can tell me how to improve!"

When I read over my students' end-of-year surveys a few weeks ago, my perspective changed. Out of all the surveys that were turned in, I had only a handful of really effective feedback that could be used. I will highlight the others below (teacher question in bold, student response in green).
What was the worst part about the interactive notebook used in science class?
"Carrying it around all the time"
"Too much writing"
"Too much work"
"Don't make us answer questions after a lab. Just do the lab and that's it."

How could the interactive science notebook be improved?
"Taking notes should be optional"
"Stop using cornell notes"
"Don't do writing like the full page conclusions for the labs and stuff"

What changes would you make to this chemistry class to improve the atmosphere or learning environment?
"Let us light stuff on fire and do explosions without goggles."
"No homework."
"We can turn in one lab per group."
"Give us some free days to just sit and talk. Don't do work all the time."

When I read a lot of these surveys, my jaw literally dropped and my mind went blank. Then I thought "Um. Seriously? The overwhelming consensus is less work and more unsafe experiments? How did we travel this far down the wrong path?"

I think there are a lot of different issues tied up in this outcome, mostly stemming from investment in my class. I obviously did not spend enough time investing students in the importance of working hard in chemistry and doing assignments like writing lab conclusions, taking cornell notes, and practicing independently at home. A lot of my students did really well and had really positive gains throughout the year, but did they know why the assignments were important? Many students learned to write great lab conclusions and make strong real-life connections, but did they understand the importance of this task? I need to effectively portray the importance of different assignments and procedures to my students, not just what we are doing in class but why are are doing it.

On the other end of the spectrum, many of the other surveys I received contained some sugary comments about how much students liked me and my class, how they learned so much and were really going to miss me. I suppose these responses are nice for emotional reasons, but have no value as far as improving my practice. These responses make me wonder, "how do I teach students to give effective positive feedback?"

Perhaps these survey responses are also a symptom of a school culture issue. It is challenging to maintain the momentum in a difficult class when other classes have very different expectations.

Overall, I guess it is difficult to expect students to give me effective feedback when I haven't modeled this practice or directly taught it. This year's end-of-year surveys left a lot to be desired, and also a lot of room for improvement in regards to investment.

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