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One Student’s Thoughts on Improving Student-Teacher Communication

I spend six hours a day with teachers—yet almost no time actually communicating with them. In many of my classes, there is perhaps one end-of-the-year survey asking me to holistically rate my various experiences as “good”, “bad”, or “okay”. The better surveys have open-ended reflection questions, but asking me to condense my reflection on nine months of learning into a few sentences is only a slight improvement. That is often the extent of the structured student-teacher communication to allow for collaboration between us.

This lack of authentic communication does not make sense for teachers whose goal it is to enhance their teaching and consequently their students’ learning. Rather than just asking students directly, teachers seem satisfied to observe hints of student behavior and search for crumbs of evidence in order to assess how to improve and modify their class. I wonder why they do not simply just ask us. Students can often understand the goal of the class through “Students Will Be Able To’s, state-level standards, and summaries of content displayed at the start of each class, but students rarely are provided the opportunity to communicate with teachers about what they need in order to meet those goals. Sure, teachers can remind students to “come with questions next class” or encourage them to drop by after school for help, but I believe there are many more valuable opportunities for structured communication. 

What can be done?

Check-Ins and Surveys:

A few things that do not require forfeiting class time stand out as particularly useful to me. The first thing a teacher could do is notice who in class is asking questions and the content of those questions. An intentional practice—perhaps post-class notes—will serve well. Another quick check-in tool, which many teachers most likely already implement, is the quick thumbs up/down survey. I have found this to be a very easy method of communication about what worked or didn’t. Also, instead of yearly surveys, teachers could implement weekly or unit-based surveys. Not only will students better recall their specific experience in these shorter periods, but educators may also gain enough information to modify upcoming units to meet the expressed needs and desires of the class.

Formative Assessments:

While the above are helpful add-on tools, larger undertakings might bear better fruit. Formative assessments, often including student-teacher dialogue after the fact, seem the ideal point for improving student-teacher communication, particularly due to their low-stakes nature.  Examples include collecting and reviewing homework as a class, in-class conferencing, or exit tickets concerning the day’s content. One of my math teachers intermittently gave our class low-stakes 10-point quizzes, sometimes by surprise, and while the class bemoaned the possibility of losing points, the quizzes were helpful not only for the teacher to understand the class’ understanding, but also for students in helping to uncover areas for improvement.

The dialogue around formative assessment is what will truly help students see their role in aiding their teacher, who in turn will aid them. Post-assessment dialogue that focuses specifically on student perceptions on fairness or accuracy is both valuable and useful. There have been numerous times when my peers and I have questioned the appropriateness of certain tests, but did not have a clear outlet to express those concerns. Instead of allowing those thoughts to fade as hallway grumbles, it would be much more productive to explore those thoughts in classroom dialogue.

Post-Assessment Cognitive Labs:

In my experience, I have found Post-Assessment Cognitive Labs that allow a group of students and a proctor to discuss students’ experiences of an assessment to be particularly useful. Educators gain an authentic, step-by-step insight into student thought processes, and students hope to shape and improve their access to well-designed assessments. Cognitive labs may prove a helpful supplement to in-test questions that ask students to share their thought processes (e.g. the omnipresent math test direction ‘show all work’).

Student-teacher collaboration, I believe, is a powerful but under-utilized tool. This summer, I had the opportunity to sit in on a CCE workshop for educators learning about Quality Performance Assessments. Teachers designing new performance assessments were eager to hear my feedback and perspective as a student. This type of communication, where students and teachers converse on prospective assessments or activities before implementation, is largely unheard of. There are obstacles to these dialogues, like time constraints and finding a representative student sample, but this seems like an opportunity too precious to pass up. Normally, teachers might slightly modify an older practice and judge the response indirectly. Here, students and teachers can directly voice their needs. The fuzzy guessing game teachers play could be eliminated and students’ concerns and frustrations could be alleviated; both parties would benefit.

Communication and collaboration is most definitely a two-way street. Both student and educator must be invested in improving the other. When there is an intentional step towards a clear communication pathway, those investments can be made in good faith.

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