How do we use the powerful resource of our students' voices to impact our practice and outcomes?
The need to incorporate student perspective became more urgent (and obvious!) to me after an experience during COVID. Our district conducted student, family, and staff surveys to check in, and the results highlighted student mental health as a major concern. A team from student services created a plan and began to communicate resources for students to utilize. But my students continued to express frustration with the lack of support. What was going on? When I asked for further feedback from them, I discovered that there was a fundamental disconnect. The adult stakeholders learned that the avenues they were using to communicate were not the avenues that the students were using!
The adults said, "We put it on Twitter."
The students said, "We aren't on Twitter. We are on Instagram and Snapchat."
Facepalm. 🤦♀️ We changed the communication strategy and realized we could have shared mental health resources in a much more effective and timely way if we had gone to the students for feedback on the plan in the first place.
Let's explore how to gather actionable feedback and what to do with it when you've got it.
What feedback lines do you already have? Do you give student, staff, and family surveys? If not, start there! Here are some other suggestions to help the process:
Once you’ve collected your feedback, be intentional about how your team digs into the quantitative and qualitative data. Survey data can be overwhelming, especially when you have a large number of students. You may have hundreds or even thousands of data points and comments. Here are some suggestions to help:
Survey data should not be used as a “gotcha” but rather as a starting point for conversation and problem-solving.
Real World Example
I was fortunate to collaborate with an insightful and reflective middle school principal and her leadership team. The school was on a watchlist, and the principal was open to addressing needs and willing to work to make positive changes.
We started the process with student, teacher, and family survey data. When we dug into the data, we noticed a difference in the ratings in two areas between staff and students: building positive relationships and making learning meaningful.
Here’s what we found:
What could be leading to this difference in perception between staff and students? We crafted some questions that could help us dig into these areas, and utilized PLC time to explore more deeply with staff. We worked together to create and structure some student focus groups to gather additional feedback. Then, we set up a timeline for gathering the feedback.
In other words, we utilized initial survey data, cross-compared the data, identified a trend, and created an action plan and timeline to gather more feedback. We were on our way to making changes that would lead to greater student achievement!
Education can sometimes feel like an endless loop of collecting data and more data and circling back around. Collecting data/feedback is essential. Assembling the right data/feedback is important. Using that data/feedback to drive our practice is just as, if not more, important.
Just like our planning to collect feedback, we need clear steps for acting on the feedback we collect:
|Set up a time to evaluate new feedback.
|Be open. Sometimes, feedback will illuminate a weakness or area of need we hadn't considered. When evaluating the feedback, we have to be open to what our stakeholders tell us, even if it may be something we didn't expect to hear.
|Define a clear goal based on the feedback. Think SMART goal during this process. We want a goal that we can reach but a goal that is also rigorous enough to push our practice.
|Create an action plan to achieve the goal. It's going to take work to get there. What steps can we take, and how do we evaluate our work?
|Create a communication plan for sharing results with stakeholders. Transparency is a key to building and maintaining relationships and trust to ensure open, honest feedback in the future. People get frustrated when it feels like their voices are not being heard. In an ongoing improvement process, communication is critical.
Whether it's your school leadership team, school improvement team, or MTSS team, having a straightforward process when examining data to guide our feedback actions is helpful. Feel free to download an editable version of the below checklist/protocol and utilize it to plan for effective, meaningful feedback collection.
|Reference your district or school improvement plan. What's the biggest goal your district or school is working towards this year? (i.e., We will improve student achievement in literacy across all subgroups by 10%)
|Determine which data to evaluate. What data do you have that supports your work towards that goal? Data to consider: state achievement data, demographic data, district or school program data, and perception data (usually surveys). (i.e., statewide testing data, district benchmark data, classroom teacher data, student survey data around learning)
|Create a data summary. Small groups could take one data set and create this in a meeting. (List the percentage of students proficient in topics connected to your improvement goal across several years. ) (i.e., create summary tables for statewide testing data, benchmark data, teacher data, and student survey data. Chart paper that can be posted around the room is a great way to capture this!)
|Determine key learnings and questions based on data. What does it tell us? What are the trends? What further feedback might help us better understand this area and the most effective program or practice changes we can make?
|Create a set of questions to gather feedback that will help further illuminate the areas of need.
|Determine the structure for gathering additional feedback. This might be student forums, student interviews, student focus groups, etc.
Real World Example
Back to our middle school! It was clear that our middle school teachers and students were perceiving relationship-building and the connection to learning differently. Teachers saw getting-to-know-you activities during the first week of school as sufficient to build relationships. They also saw things like stating learning goals as making learning meaningful. Students believed that teachers didn't see them as individuals and that learning wasn’t connected to their experiences and daily lives.
After a rich conversation, the principal and leadership team decided to do a faculty and staff book study that connected building relationships and rigorous learning in a concise, actionable way:
The team also communicated the book study focus to the school community (students and families), and community forums were established throughout the year to continue sharing with key stakeholders and to elicit further feedback. School leadership regularly visited with student groups on campus to gather their insights and additional information connected to the book study.
A question I often hear posed when we talk about feedback is, "But how do we know students are being honest?" One thing I have learned in working with student groups and input over the years is that, for the most part, students will be brutally honest with us if they know we are listening. In my first year of teaching a new class at the high school, I had students write a final reflective letter to me about their learning experiences. I'll never forget reading Chelsea's letter. She had written, "I really like having to write this letter because it made me stop and think. And I have to ask you, Ms. B, why you haven't had us do this more often? I mean, you had us do other things, but I think this would have been better." Okay, Chelsea, I hear you! The following semester, I embedded the reflective letters more regularly! Chelsea was right; it did make our learning stronger.
There are steps that help ensure an honest, open atmosphere when getting feedback from students:
Real World ExampleFor example, an elementary school my colleague was helping survey noted that 3rd-5th grade students stated that drugs and gun violence were a big concern in their school. This school had not seen any drug or gun violations, so follow-up was definitely needed. It turned out that the students were worried about these issues in society at large, not in their school. After all, they were taught that drugs and violence are bad and hurt people, so of course, they are a “big concern.” This feedback helped the staff reassure students that their school is a safe place to be, and to change the way they surveyed students to provide additional explanations and directions for each question.
💡 Related Resource: The Importance of Engaging Student Voices in MTSS
That middle school we have been following? They completed their book study for the year. They circled back around and re-surveyed their student and staff stakeholder groups. Both groups saw improvement, and there was a closer connection between their perceptions! They also heard from families that they felt better connected to the school. I was not surprised to see their success because they had followed the process and been intentional about addressing a specific area of need. And the work didn’t stop there! They were able to celebrate their successes, define a clear area for improvement in instructional practices for the following school year, and repeat the steps to continue moving their work forward.
MTSS helps us serve our students because it provides a framework to understand, gather data, create action plans, implement plans, and monitor progress. We can achieve even greater results when we develop open lines of communication and gather effective feedback directly from the students we are serving!
Branching Minds Professional Services can help you create a plan for gathering data and using it to drive a healthy school culture and better student outcomes. We can’t wait to partner with you! Request a consultation today >>
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Harper, Amelia. “Improvement Science Helps School Districts Succeed at New Initiatives.” K-12 Dive, 3 July 2019. https://www.k12dive.com/news/improvement-science-helps-school-districts-succeed-at-new-initiatives/558146/. Accessed 22 Jan. 2024.
Navolio, Maria. “Best Practices in School Improvement Planning.” Hanover Research, 27 Dec. 2023, www.hanoverresearch.com/insights-blog/best-practices-in-school-improvement-planning/?org=k-12-education.
Notes and Reflections: Using Data to Guide School Improvement, North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 2004, files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED518630.pdf.
Teresa is an Educational Consultant with Branching Minds. She has had the privilege in her 30 year public education career to serve in a variety of roles where she has honed her skills as a classroom practitioner, coach and education leader. She served for over 20 years as a classroom teacher teaching almost every grade from 1st- 12th. At the school level and district level, Teresa held roles as a literacy coach, instructional coach, program academic specialist, district coordinating teacher for secondary literacy and the Director for Student Engagement in the Office of Equity Affairs in the largest school district in North Carolina. All of Teresa’s experiences have helped her gain expertise in working with students and families to co-create teaching and learning spaces and experiences that center and affirm our students’ and families’ cultural heritages as assets. Teresa is also a mom and is pretty proud of the four amazing human beings she raised. You’ll often find her hanging out with them talking books, social issues and (currently) cheering on her youngest as a college swimmer.