Over the years, I’ve gotten in the habit of regularly surveying my students about the class. Just as we grade students on their performance, I give them a chance to “grade” me, and I ask for feedback that is more specific than the student evaluations that the college gives.

Midway through the semester, I often give an anonymous survey, allowing them full honesty without fear of being penalized for telling the truth. But I always try to keep a climate of openness in my classroom. I let my students know that I will take their suggestions seriously and use them to improve the course. I use an end-of-semester survey as part of their grade. These are not anonymous, yet I find them as revealing as the anonymous surveys.

These surveys provide me with information about what’s working and what isn’t working in my classroom. I think this is especially important with basic skills students, but can be done with any course across the curriculum.

CREATING A CLASS SURVEY

Class surveys can be done formally or informally. A formal way is to type up a questionnaire and have the students fill it out. An informal way to do the survey is to simply write questions on the board and ask everyone to get out a sheet of paper and answer them. As a reading instructor, I am particularly interested in students’ opinions about the stories, articles and books we read. However, any instructor could adapt a survey to fit the specifics of his or her subject. Following are some survey questions that I’ve used:

Instructions: Please use your course calendar, notes, handouts, completed assignments, and textbooks to complete this survey:

* What class activities and assignments did you enjoy the most and learn the most from? [I might list the various class activities here. Example: reading response journals, stories and questions from textbook, flash cards, mind maps, discussions.]) Explain:

* What class activities were not helpful to you? Explain:

* What stories and articles in the textbook _______ did you enjoy the most and learn the most from? Do you recommend that I continue to use this book? [I might list the stories we’ve read so far.]

* What stories and articles were not helpful? Explain:

* Do you find this class difficult, easy, or just right? Comment:

* Do you find the grading and point distribution fair? If no, explain:

* Do you have any suggestions for improving this class? Explain:

* Give me a grade for teaching. Explain:

* Please rate your effort and performance in this class. What grade do you think you have earned? What have you learned about the “art” of being a student in this class?

*Is there anything else that you want to say here?

BENEFITS OF A CLASS SURVEY

The benefits of class surveys are many. Over the years, I’ve used my students’ responses and comments to improve my course by continuing with the activities and texts that are effective and changing the ones that are not. As a result, the course gets better and more effective, and the not-so-hot reviews get fewer and fewer. The reality that students learn in different ways is reinforced as I note student’s favorite assignments: “I love writing the journals. They allow me to express myself, and I look forward to reading the teacher’s comments to me,” or “I enjoy class discussions because I get to hear what everybody thinks about the issue.” However, other students might say, “I don’t like writing journals because I don’t know what to say,” or “I didn’t like the discussions because I’m shy.”

Usually, I realize that almost all of the assignments have value for most of the students. However, if the majority of students give a “thumbs down” to an activity, I’ll either eliminate it or try to figure out how to make it work more effectively. Likewise with stories, articles and textbooks. For example, while most students enjoy working in groups, a “bad” group can ruin the experience, so I keep refining my efforts to hold each group member responsible for doing his or her part without penalizing the hardest workers. Students sometimes give very specific suggestions that I use when planning the next semester. For example, last year a student suggested that I give half credit for turning in late journals. I began doing that this semester and find that it encourages students to do the readings and get their journals in, even if they missed the boat when the assignment was first due. For a hybrid College Reading class, a few students suggested that I spend more time at the beginning of the semester leading them through the process of using Blackboard, step by step. I intend to do so in the future.

My students struggle the most with the hybrid class, because they are unfamiliar with the technology or have trouble staying self-motivated during that long week when we don’t meet face to face. I tend to worry that the class is too difficult or that they are not finding the assignments valuable. A recent survey of this class was very reassuring: 82% found the class to be at the right level of difficulty, with the rest split between reporting it too difficult or too easy. Overall, the comments were overwhelmingly positive, like this one: “This class is perfect in my opinion.” A survey can let you know that the quiet majority of the class appreciates your efforts and design. Conversely, if you sense that the design needs improvement, students appreciate being asked to help make it better.

As I continue to improve my courses, I become more satisfied and rewarded by many students’ affirmations that my course has been valuable to them. Students want their opinions to be valued, respected and heard.

As a rule, the students are kind in their comments. Some of the comments are almost humorous: “Sometimes my mind goes blank. But overall, I’m OK.” A few complain of too much homework or that the class is boring. I suspect that many of these are under-prepared students or ones that have not yet learned that college requires an extraordinary effort on their part. But I think it’s imperative that we take such comments seriously, and including more learner-centered activities in my class has reduced those types of complaints over the years.

The greatest reward are comments like, “I used to hate reading, but now I love it,” “You are a teacher who cares about her students,” “I give my professor an A+ for making the lessons clear and lively.” and, “I thought this class was just going to be about reading, but it changed my life.”

VARIATIONS ON THE SURVEY

— As an end-of-semester reflection, students attach their three best assignments to the survey, and explain what they learned from each and why they chose that assignment.
— Use the surveys as an ongoing way to evaluate the course effectiveness: Every couple of weeks, ask students for comments, complaints or suggestions about the class.
— Use as an intervention any time during the semester when you think things are not going well. Last semester, I tried a new textbook that proved to be too difficult and boring as well. I put the class in groups and used specific questions to help me use the book more effectively and get the course back on track. Their suggestions were terrific, and they appreciated the chance to give input about the problem.

–Cher Johnson, Faculty, Reading Coordinator, Southwestern Community College, CA

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