Can Students Provide Worthwhile Feedback For School Reform?

I’ve cringed when I’ve heard students in the past make discouraging remarks about other classes, and if you’ve spent any time in the classroom, you’ve inevitably heard both positive and negative reviews of your colleagues. These informal reviews are often spot-on, a contention Amanda Ripley argues in The Atlantic, as strong evidence exists suggesting students are the best evaluators of teaching effectiveness.

But what about student voice regarding general school reform?  Is it possible student insight should be considered more as we redesign schools, classrooms, curriculums, and policy?

Obviously, students don’t have master’s degrees in Education Leadership. Students generally don’t study pedagogy, read Education Week, or converse online about education-related debates. But they do know what is most engaging, impactful, and inspiring in schools. After all, they’re the subjects of countless lab experiments, so to speak, all with wildly different results.

I asked some of my students from Fern Creek High School in Louisville to discuss what changes they believe would be beneficial to schools. All of the students have, at some point, been frustrated with a “sit and get” model of education, and they didn’t prepare their responses.

Listen by clicking here.

What strikes you most about their words? For me, what’s alarming is their perception of a lack of student choice in course selection, in addition to a dearth of creative opportunities.

As we plow ahead with implementing the Common Core Standards, it’s imperative that we design instruction to allow for discovery, creation, and action.

At Fern Creek, Brent Peters and Joe Franzen have designed a dynamic English III course centered around food, with students beginning each instructional unit facing a big question leading to critical inquiry, intensive writing, and hands-on learning: What is good food?, Is food sacred?, and Is school lunch saving our generation? are among the questions students tackle. The class is a hit with the kids.

As for me, I’ve attempted to exploit the open-ended language of the CCSS to allow for student discovery, creation, and action as well, designing a digital media course titled Unleashing Digital Storytelling.

Teacher leaders, how do you incorporate student voice into your classrooms?  Is the Common Core designed to let students discover knowledge?  In general, do policy-makers listen to students enough? Should they?


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  • JessicaCuthbertson

    YES to Student Voice!

    This is exactly what I needed to read and think about today. Great post. This line really hit me in the gut from the audio student comments: “I like knowledge, but I don’t like school.” Wow…pretty much says it all.

    I’m preparing for an end of quarter reflection and “community meeting” in my own classroom where I plan on asking students about what’s working (and what needs work) in our classroom community/literacy block. But this post has made me think much bigger, about tapping the brains of my 7th graders to talk about school at the macro level with respect to what needs to be changed and what supports their learning. 

    We talk often about teacher voice which I believe to be critical in school redesign conversations. But we need to talk more about student voice as well. Until we do, school will be done to students instead of with and for students. 

    P.S. And I’d love to be a student in both the foodie English class and in the digital storytelling course — guiding question for a course of study for quarter 2 as I plan forward is going to be: would I want to be a student in this class? 

    • PaulBarnwell

      Problem if students like knowledge, but not school…


      Rick’s comment struck a chord with me too.  How can we create structures where students can discover passions and knowledge, in addition to learning mandated curriculum?  For Rick and a lot of boys, especiallly, sitting still in desks all day doesn’t cut it.

      I taught middle school for six years, and I’d love to hear about your feedback from 7th graders.  Students, even if they don’t outwardly express it, really appreciate being asked for input.  It does get tiring being dictated to all day, every day!

      Thanks for stopping by!

    • bradclark


      I was co-leading a roundtable discussion with students on the last day of Idea Festival this past Friday and one of the middle school panelists said something to the effect of “I like school I just don’t like the style of teaching I receive.”  Wow.  That is pretty insightful.  

      During the panel discussion (and based on feedback from the many attendees of Idea Festival) I came away with a new perspective on student voice:

      * Students are significantly more self-reflective than I recall being at their age or than I give them credit for being:(

      * Students are very aware of their learning/thinking process…the topics consistently turned to metacognition and discussions of learning style preferences.

      * Students are hungry for individualized instruction.

      * Student insight blows my mind…imagine if we, as educators, were able to harness the formative data provided by student surveys to guide our philosophy of education and the spirit of our unit design.  It would change the learning environment drastically.

  • AnneJolly

    Student choice =student learning

    When teaching 8th grade science students I always gave them 3 surveys. Survey 1 at the beginning of school included these questions, among others: What do you like about school? How do you like to learn? Survey 2 occurred at the beginning of the second semester and included these questions: How am I doing? What are we doing that helps you learn? What do you wish we were doing? Survey 3 ended the year and asked in part: How did I do this year? What did you enjoy learning the most?

    I used this as anecdotal information to help me improve, but a clear pattern emerged. Kids were more engaged, curious, and learned more when they had some choice in their learning. The vast majority wanted active learning. They loved learning things that had real meaning for them and something they could impact.

    Boy I wish I had saved those surveys. Idea for teachers: add a room to your home and save all that anecdotal data!

    • PaulBarnwell

      Assessing Active Learning


      How can we get to the point where policy-makers and education “leaders” won’t accept the narrow-minded vision and application of data tied to multiple choice tests, in favor of project-based and more real-world assessments and tasks?  Are these possible to quantify for those who want to see numbers?

      • brisonharvey

        Standardized Scoring

        I believe that there is a way to create a system of “standardizing” the scoring of projects and real-world assessments. I believe that rubrics offer the raw data that fuel accountability, but offer the freedom of grading these projects in the myriad of ways that they are submitted. I believe that creating a system of grading with rubrics, training graders on what to look for in projects, and creating clear requirements allow for a standardized method of reviewing these projects.

        I know that Maryland had a requirement that students pass 4 standardized tests in order to graduate. If a student failed the same test twice, then the students could complete a semester long project that could compensate for the test score. If they accept it for a small group of their student population, why can’t we?

  • Marc brasof


    I’m finishing up a dissertation on this subject. Students see more than adults give them credit for. And, I found that they can trigger real organizational learning.



    • LoriNazareno

      Tell me more!!!

      I would love to hear more about what you have found/learned through your work!

      • PaulBarnwell

        I second that!

        I second that!

  • LoriNazareno

    From the mouths of babes…

    Students can indeed be our best source of information for how to improve our practice(s). After all, isn’t school REALLY supposed to be for them? 

    I was deeply saddened by both the comment mentioned by Jessica and, “We don’t learn things we can carry with us throughout all our lives”. If that is the case, then we have truly missed the mark with what we are doing (or not) for kids.

    I know that I always tried to be sure that I designed my classes so that kids could experience the real-world application of science content by doing service learning projects and getting out into the community. What I didn’t do, was actually ask them if it was working for them. And, more important, how things needed to be different if the answer was no. It makes me want to go back and ask them now, though I know that students with whom I am still in touch may not be as forthright now as they would have been when they were in my class.

    And, certainly students talk to each other and know what works for them in the overall system…and what does not. I think that students can and should provide insight into their experiences to inform larger scale reform efforts. They know…

    I am wondering how our work in teacher leadership intersects with the notion of elevating student voice. How might we facilitate a parallel path for students as we work to elevate teacher voice?

    Thanks for a terrific post Paul!

    • PaulBarnwell



      Is there a place or ability to recruit a variety of students from our respective schools to host a webinar or voice chat to collect more data and involve students?  I know of several students who would be excited to participate, and what better life lesson that teach–and let students apply–the ability to be advocates for themselves?

      • Mak

        Good idea!

        I might also try to encourage students who are reluctant to speak up to do so. Some of these students are the ones that need to be reached and have been discouraged so far by their school experience. Give them a voice.

  • BriannaCrowley

    So much swirling in my head!


    I loved this post. As always, you seem to propell my thinking in new directions that inspire me to be better. Side note: Amanda Riply seems to be on fire right now in the education publishing space. Has anyone else seen her Common Core article in the recent TIME mag? And this summer she riled our very own Ann Byrd and Barnett Berry with her article about the $4 Million “Teacher” (quotes are a nod to Ann). 

    I loved hearing from your students through the podcast. I also loved Anne’s suggestion about the regular surveys that respond to the school year progression. I’ve been a huge advocate of the student —> teacher feedback loop. Formative assessment has been an eduBuzzWord for a few decades, but that loop seems to elicit student feedback only selectively and almost passively. If formative feedback runs clockwise, I advocate we should create an additional counter-clockwise feedback loop with our students through surveys and open-ended questions that empower them to share their genius (as Angela Meirs would say). My first published article was about this very idea: Students Assessing Teachers. 

    So the conversation here inspired me to create more explicit student voice feedback in my classroom. When I have my students reflect at the end of each marking period, I’ll also provide them with a survey that asks them to reflect on MY practice as well with questions that prompt them to share what kind of learning environment they want. I may not be able to make everything happen, but at least I can show that I value their voice and want to give them a place to share their their perspective on their education. 

    By the way, I cross-posted this on CTQ’s profile page at Hope it propells the conversation even more!

    • PaulBarnwell





    • PaulBarnwell



      Thanks for stopping by with all of these leads!  I actually was able to chat with Amanda Ripley in an interview for that Time article, but I haven’t read it yet.  

      Will you share some of your survey results?  My own classroom feedback loop isn’t too formalized and I often revise it.  It’s really challenging to incorporate more of what students want–and probably deserve–especially when teaching Junior English, which is heavily geared towards ACT Prep and a state writing exam.  But I try.  

      Have a great weekend.



      • BriannaCrowley

        Survey Results

        Thanks for asking for concrete examples…I just spent the past 20 minutes combing through my different Google docs, forms, and Socrative feedback forms to find some..and although I should probably be grading, I was kinda inspired by the way my students were giving great feedback. 

        These first 2 are from a very recent refleciton assignment I gave my students. They reflected on the feedback they received from a presentation they gave. As the last question, I also asked them to reflect on the project as a whole to provide me with feedback. student feedback on project 1student feedback on project 2teachers should listen
        ^^^The example above was pulled from my beginning-of-the-year student survey. I ask them: “What is the most important thing you think teachers should know about their students?” This was one of my best answers!
        ^^^This final example was a screenshot from my MP1 survey of freshman students. I used Socrative which emails me this Excel spreadsheet of student answers. Helps me to refocus my activities or content. 
  • bradclark


    Alessandra Rizzotti·about 8 hours ago

     “I can’t speak as a teacher- but I think as a student, it’s sometimes hard to feel comfortable enough to offer criticism or feedback. So how do you make the environment feel more comfortable and open? Building trust obviously works- but also showing that you respect any opinion that comes your way.”

    This came from the link that Ms. Crowley provided above and it is worth addressing.  In KY, the Professional Growth & Effectiveness System is going to include a student survey component, but I think the heart of the issue, and this blog thread in general, is that student feedback and agency needs to be an integral component of everyday instructional practice, not a one time event that is tacked on to the end of year/end of course assessment.

    So…the student perspective above?  How do we deal with that very real issue?

    • BriannaCrowley

      Continuing the discussion


      Thanks for bringing that valuable comment over here! Feel free to also respond directly on GOOD as that space is built for discussions as well. 

      I agree that student feedback should be more integral in our practice and our dicussions of schools structures and policy. Your comment insinuated that student feedback shouldn’t only come during the “autopsy” phase of any project, unit, or year. Similarly, student input shouldn’t be for show…this harkens to Ariel Sack’s post on this “tokenism” voice regarding teachers. She argues that having a place at the table isn’t enough. Teachers’ voice and leadership needs to have power and agency for real change. Similarly, we need to be careful to advocate for real student influence…not just input

      But Paul brings up a very real tension in that much of our curriculum and pacing are mandated. Asking students to have agency isn’t totally within our parameters at times. My students may want to deeply engage in an authentic topic, but if I have a set amount of curriculum to cover before a standardized test or common final, I won’t be able to act on the student opinions.

      I feel like there is so much more to explore with this!

      • bradclark

        two points

        1.  Tokenism:  that is exactly what it is…and exactly why teachers are reluctant to fight for a voice.  They fear that it will be used for purposes not their own and it breeds apathy.  

        2.  Although the standards are mandated there is A LOT of room for student choice in theexecution/implementation of those standards.  My colleague (Annie Jones who signed up for CTQ but does not get on here near enough; yes, that was a DIG) and I have grappled with this concept over the past three years.  What we have realized is that the standards are like an anchor.  The students are in a boat and at times they drop the anchor, Which the educator secures.  The boat may search/travel all around the waters of a domain for a while, but my job is to make sure the anchor holds.  In this way, students may all travel in divergent directions in their inquiry, but at the end of the day they are all tethered to a set of standards that I will use to measure performance.  Man I hope that makes sense.  I love an analogy but that one is tricky.  We have created a diagram.  I will try to upload a copy.

        What I am trying to say is that students have a lot of choice built into the implementation of the standards.  The pacing and curriculum (what I would rather term the progression of standards instruction calendar or the frequency of instructing on each standard and the means by which you reach standard mastery) should be flexible enough to adapt instructional practices based on multiple data points (formative light, formative full-bodied and anecdotal).  If we can demonstrate masatery fo our profession, we should be able to deviate from the line so long as we are well aware that we are accountable for the line.

        So the question for me, and I think you raised this very deftly, is what are the many ways that we give students agency in their learning process?  It is not a false-summative, tokenistic assessment tacked on to their end of course acheivement test; and I do not think it is by everyone flipping the classroom (though done properly is fabulous).  It is deeper than that I think.  We have to change our role all together in the equation.  As we diminish in dominating the agency in the classroom and empower kids to manage their own learning (developing their voice) we have created a vacuum that can be filled with independent thinkers. 

        So that begs another question that I think is the flipside of the coin, as we increase the agency of students in our formal and informal learning environments, how do we redesign the role of the teacher?  You honestly cannot address the issue of student voice without also addressing the issue of teacher voice.

  • KellyStidham

    Listening more closely

    Have you all seen the student lab work from BIF?  They asked students to use design thinking model to build their own school, provide feedback to teachers, and other projects.  Mind blowing stuff.

  • SusanGraham

    Tough but Fair

    I taught for years before I had the courage to ask my students to grade their own performance on projects because I thought I’d have to argue with them. I did, they were harder on themselves than I had been.

    That made me realize that I owed to them to let them assess me. Project assessments and written assessments regularly asked, “What did you learn that mattered?” “What do you think you’ll remember five years from now?” “What would you suggest I do differently if I’m teaching this lesson to your friend next semester?”

    One of the greatest compliment I a teacher can get is “Tough but fair.” I figure we owe kids the same level of respect.

    • BriannaCrowley

      Scary… in a good way!

      This post was like the echo of my own thoughts materialized in your comments. This is exactly the direction my practice has evolved–I regularly ask my students to provide feedback on what they learned, how they learn best, and what I can do to make it better next time. 

      I’ve also always said that I want to be remembered as a teacher who was ALWAYS fair and also “tough” because I challenged my students every day to reach farther than they thought they could.