Student surveys: how to use class feedback to improve teaching techniques

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The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s three year MET project, (“Ensuring Fair and Reliable Measures of Effective Teaching”), found that gathering feedback from student surveys consistently helps identify more effective teaching.

Student surveys give teachers and administrators important information about which parts of a course or program are working and which aren’t. Student feedback also gives more context to other forms of teaching evaluation, like having guest teachers sit in on classes—which the MET project found to be a flawed way to determine teaching quality.

Depending on your goals, a well-designed student survey can help you plan next year’s curriculum, understand more about the learning culture of your school (and whether there need to be changes), or rethink class structure.

Here are four ways that you can use student surveys, and how to turn that data into better teaching.

1. Use student surveys to understand who your pupils are and what they need.

Sometimes, your first real task as a teacher is assessing what your students know. Too often, teachers start the year without clarity about how prepared their students are. In 2017, public colleges reported that more than half a million students enter were not ready for college-level work by the time they came in as freshmen. Even at lower levels, education can be inconsistent across different schools, teachers, and parents.

Unlike tests, surveys can help you get that information without causing your students anxiety, and also can help you collect other details, like how your students learn or what they’re worried about.

Rachelle Poth, a Spanish teacher at Riverview Junior Senior High School, used SurveyMonkey to ask about her students’ study habits and how they prepare for tests and midterm exams. She wanted to understand how certain behaviors map back to those students’ performance. She also asked her students about their learning styles, strengths and weaknesses.

Your teaching material is only so flexible. You can’t necessarily change your lesson plans based on student preferences, but if you find out early on that the majority of your class skimps on pre-test studying, or missed an important piece of background knowledge in previous years, you might be able to make changes to account for that.

Sample questions to ask in an initial student survey:

  • How do you learn best?
  • Which classes have you already taken on this subject?
  • Would you rather write an essay or take a test?
  • For young students, you can also get a lot of initial information by sending a survey to their parents.Check out our free child behaviors template.

  • 2. Get feedback about the workload, pace, and structure of your class.

    Surveys can be helpful for measuring the pace and workload of your class (though if you ask students home much homework they think is fair mid-year, you’ll have to use your own judgment about whether to take responses with a grain of salt). They can also give you a better idea of which projects your class loved and which ones they had problems with.

    You can ask students to rank lessons in order of difficulty, what they found the most helpful, and what they’d change if they could. This type of feedback might give you ideas about what to try the next year, or might validate decisions that you’re unsure about.

    Rate My Professor’s annual list of top university professors are most consistently praised for their accessibility and approachability—not necessarily their perfect curriculums. Students clearly value the opportunity to come to teachers with their questions. Surveys can help you open that line of communication, and bring your class’s input into your planning process.

    For this type of survey, it’s best to be brief, clear, and specific. The object is to give your students free space to weigh in on things you might not have thought about. Our pre-written course satisfaction template can get you started.

    Sample questions to ask in a course feedback survey:

  • What were the three most helpful activities that we did in this course?
  • >What would your advice be for future students taking this class?
  • On average, how long did the homework for this class take you each night?<
  • 3. Ask about your school’s learning environment.

    It’s fairly common to ask for student feedback about coursework and teacher performance, but most schools overlook environmental factors like classroom culture or physical resources. That leaves a major gap in evaluations, because those factors make a huge impact on student work.

    Ask your students about programs that your school is trialing, or about your how often they use physical or digital resources (think: mini-libraries, study groups, computer labs, online databases). This can help you think about whether to change them moving forward.

    Anonymous surveys are also a fantastic way to give students an outlet to surface emotional concerns (like problems with bullying, not feeling comfortable asking questions, or peer pressure). Students need a sense of security in order to do their best learning, so it’s critical to understand if your students are feeling uncomfortable. Surveys help give you clarity about factors that might otherwise be left unsaid.

    If you send surveys that ask students about your school’s learning atmosphere on a regular basis (annually or quarterly), you’ll be able to track changes over time and see whether certain changes (like new policies or resources) make a difference. You can also see if the general academic performance of your classes mirror any of the broader changes.

    To get the most reliable feedback, it’s best to focus on just a few key areas, and give students room to elaborate if they choose to. Keeping surveys short and longer answers optional means that your students won’t burn out (and start answering less reliably) and that they’ll only weigh in on the topics that they really feel passionate about.

    Sample questions to ask in a learning environment survey:

  • Which class resources did you take advantage of?<
  • Did you feel comfortable asking questions in this class?
  • Do you feel like you have someone you can talk to if you’re struggling academically?
  • 4. Assess yourself or other teachers.

    Getting feedback about teacher performance is one of the most common uses of student surveys, and they provide valuable insights both for the teacher and the school. Per the MET project report:

    “Student perception surveys and classroom observations can provide meaningful feedback to teachers. They also can help system leaders prioritize their investments in professional development to target the biggest gaps between teachers’ actual practice and the expectations for effective teaching.”

    These surveys can help you evaluate teaching techniques and training resources, and set benchmarks for future evaluations. Using sliding scale questions makes it easy to get a feel for students’ sentiment as whole, and identify trends.

    If you’re starting from scratch, our university instructor evaluation template can get you started. As time goes on, you can use the same survey to compare results from teacher to teacher or class to class.

    Sample questions to ask in a teacher evaluation survey:

  • How would you rate this instructors mastery of the material?
  • How interested were you in the lessons that this instructor offered?
  • >Was this instructor able to explain the course material clearly?
  • Teaching is as educational for the people leading the class as the ones in it. Regularly collecting student feedback can help you refine your technique based on their’ unique and specific needs. As Albert Einstein said:

    “I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”

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