As schools and districts across the country continue to pivot, adapt, and recalibrate to address the challenges posed by COVID-19, collecting feedback from students is critical. This can be done in both formal and informal ways, ranging from casual conversations with students or advisory groups to administering a school-wide climate survey. To bridge the divide between these formal and informal feedback mechanisms, semi-structured conversations with diverse groups of students can serve as an opportunity to learn more about students’ experiences and dig deeper into opportunities to boost school climate. Student climate data can illuminate key areas of success and opportunities for growth, allowing school leaders to understand, reflect, and act on feedback. Whether virtual, in-person, or hybrid, consider the following tips for planning, running, and reflecting on conversations about students’ experiences and perceptions of school climate.
Prior to soliciting student feedback, reflect on what you hope to learn. If you’ve recently collected feedback from stakeholders in the form of surveys or other conversations, what insights did you glean? Where do you have lingering questions?
Consider collecting input from other faculty and staff, and generate hypotheses collectively. A hypothesis can take the form of an “if-then” statement. For example, in order to dive deeper into student-teacher relationships, a team might consider the impact of having a positive relationship with at least one adult at school. The team may then generate the following hypothesis prior to talking with students: If students mention having an adult at school that they trust, then they will feel more connected to school.
Once you’ve established a guiding hypothesis or two, develop a few open-ended questions to target what you hope to learn. In order to develop questions to test these hypotheses, it may be helpful to consider two broad lines of inquiry: information gathering and digging into solutions.
These types of questions are intended for exploration or for gleaning a more nuanced understanding of a surprising finding from student survey responses. They tend to be more general and open-ended. Based on the example above, a starting point might include the following: “If you’re dealing with a challenge at school, who do you turn to for help, and why?”
Because this question cannot be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and because it does not prime students to respond a particular way, students may list friends, household members, or adults from school. Depending on how students respond, it may be helpful to plan a few different follow-up questions to learn more about the relationship qualities that students value.
Alternatively, certain questions are more suitable when a particular opportunity or challenge has already been identified, or to explore proposed solutions. In keeping with the same example, perhaps student survey results indicate that most students do have an adult at school who they can turn to for help. However, you may want to learn more about how these relationships were built and how to ensure that they remain strong. A relevant question might look like the following: “If you’re dealing with a challenge at school, which adult(s) at school do you turn to for help, and why?”
Because this question is more specific than the previous example, it opens up a host of specific follow-up questions. For example, if multiple students mention their advisor or homeroom teacher, consider asking about the specific activities that take place during advisory/homeroom that help build rapport.
Finally, take a moment with a colleague or two to review the questions that you’ve generated. Is there anything else that you hope to learn more about? Are the questions clear without leading students towards a particular response?
When setting the stage for a productive and open conversation, prioritize elements that will enable students to feel safe, supported, and welcome. If possible, invite a cross-section of students to the table in order to solicit diverse perspectives across demographic and social factors. Consider the relationships among the students and staff member(s) that will be involved, and prioritize creating a dynamic where students will feel trusted and comfortable sharing openly. With this in mind, open the conversation with a casual, fun icebreaker that gets students talking. The goal is simply to get everyone ‘warmed up’ and ready to engage.
Prior to diving into the questions that you’ve prepared, remind students of the purpose of the conversation. Explain that the session will help you learn more about participants’ experiences and that you hope they will respond candidly to the questions posed. Although these conversations aren’t anonymous or confidential, reiterate to students that their feedback will be used to help improve their school experience and that their responses will not be used for any other purposes. Finally, offer students the choice to opt out of the conversation at any time or skip any of the questions.
Consider taking notes, as close to verbatim as possible, in order to capture what students actually said, rather than what you think they said or what you’ve interpreted a statement to mean. When asking follow-up or clarifying questions, emphasize that you hope to learn more about a particular reflection, and if necessary, reiterate that the goal of the conversation is simply to learn more about students’ experiences in a repercussion- and judgment-free space.
At the end of the conversation, be sure to thank students for their time and contributions. If possible, offer a small reward to thank students for participating.
Perhaps the most important component of collecting feedback from students is reviewing and reflecting on what was shared. In order to capture feedback with fidelity, it may be helpful to note students’ names alongside their responses in order to keep track of any overarching themes that may emerge. Alternatively, consider assigning each student a letter or number to use when recording their reflections. Students can wear a sticker or post-it with their identifier, or rename themselves on Zoom. While these sessions are not anonymous, this additional step may help ensure that an existing relationship with a student does not influence how their reflections are interpreted. Of course, take context into consideration when choosing how to identify students’ responses.
After the session, staff member(s) who participated can take time to review the notes, consolidate related ideas, and begin to identify themes in students’ responses. Consider embarking on this step independently to avoid being swayed by other perspectives. Afterwards, reconvene to discuss, process, and identify next steps as a larger group.
Occasionally, informal feedback conversations can raise more questions than answers. If this is the case, student feedback can spark topics to cover in “check in” surveys or drive subsequent discussions, either one-on-one with the same participants, or with a different group of students.
On the other hand, these conversations can also add clarity and nuance to existing information collected through other means, such as comprehensive student surveys. Whether students are learning in person, remotely, or a combination of the two, soliciting feedback offers an opportunity to check assumptions and develop a targeted response to student needs.
The author would like to thank NewSchools Venture Fund, particularly Erin Harless, for contributing to this blog post.