One of the most important things to a positive career in education is professional development—essential to maintaining a high standard of teaching at all times. If you’re lucky, you might live somewhere with regular public workshops or work somewhere that provides in-house training. However, for many teachers, access to such programmes can be limited and registration costs can be prohibitive. That’s why I am writing about a cost-free way to stay at the top of your game.
An extremely valuable resource for professional development is feedback on your teaching. If we seek out reliable feedback and make good use of it, we can improve our teaching techniques and strengthen our relationship with students quite effectively. Not sure how to get feedback? In this article we will look at three invaluable sources of feedback that you can start making use of right away.
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Of the three sources, teachers I have worked with have often been able to come up with the first two fairly quickly, but the third eludes them time and time again. Often teachers understand the value of receiving feedback from their peers and from their students, but they frequently neglect to realise the importance of feedback through self-evaluation
Even though teachers are often able to name the first two, when I ask whether or not they make use of them, the answer is usually no, or at best on very rare occasions. Here I’ll discuss the value of each type of feedback and some ways to collect valuable information from them that will help you improve as a teacher.
Peer feedback can come from a number of different people in various roles. You can get feedback from other teachers on your faculty or from seniors in the institution, such as a senior teacher or even the head of your school. For many teachers, the idea of being observed by their senior is daunting for the fear that bad feedback might negatively affect their job security. However, any good institution will have a culture of development in place, whereby weaknesses are seen as areas for improvement, and as long as improvement is indeed made by the time the next observation is conducted, there’s really no need for punishment of any kind.
At the same time, a lot of teachers feel uncomfortable asking their fellow teachers to observe them. Sometimes this is from fear of seeming demanding, and sometimes it’s because they don’t want to make their colleagues uncomfortable should they feel they don’t have the experience necessary to give feedback on an observation. These problems are easily resolved, though. First of all, you can offer from the get go to take turns with your colleague, saying that you will observe him if he agrees to observe you. Secondly, assure your colleague that you are just after some casual feedback from one teacher to another—nothing formal, nothing that requires any specific training or experience, just simple comments.
Feedback from peers is best sought when you have a particular element of your teaching in mind; it might be that you’re having difficulty controlling the behaviour of a certain class or need to find a way to deliver a given learning point so that your students will best understand. This will give your colleague something to focus on, rather than just asking for general feedback on the lesson as a whole, which might be more challenging for someone with no experience observing others.
That should not be a problem for your seniors though. Ideally, anybody in a senior position in a learning institution will be an experienced and capable classroom observer and will be able to give in-depth feedback on every aspect of your teaching process. Usually, a senior will be a more experienced teacher than you as well, and so should have a wealth of suggestions and solutions for problems you might be experiencing. Finally, a great benefit of getting feedback from your senior is that it gives you a clear picture of what he or she envisions as the philosophy and methodology of the institution, and you can try to tailor your teaching to that specific style.
On the other hand, even teachers with less teaching experience than you can be valuable sources of feedback, as solutions don’t always have to come from experience. Valuable suggestions can simply be the product of a different perspective, which might well come from someone who is new to teaching and thus, for example, has not been conditioned by the ways of the institution. Either way, it is extremely helpful to get someone else’s ideas and opinions on your teaching if you want to improve yourself and give the best to your students.
The second source of feedback is more readily available. Getting feedback from your students is easy and essential. It can come in two main forms, prompted and unprompted. Unprompted Student Feedback is the comments that students pass whether you’re asking for them or not. It might be things they say in class to you or to their classmates; it might be things they report to other teachers; or it might be the things they say to their parents after school that get reported back to you.
A good and conscientious teacher will seek these comments out, listen to them and act upon them. If one of your students feels a certain way about you as a teacher and says so—whether directly to you or to someone else—you should take it fully on board. A reaction that I hear frequently with regard to this is, in whatever terms it is uttered, essentially that students don’t know what they’re talking about and that teachers know best.
This does have an element of truth to it, and in certain cases it is entirely possible that the student is mistaken about how effective a certain method is or is simply complaining for purely selfish reasons. However, a lot of the time, however uninformed their opinions might be, student comments are valid. Ultimately, if your students are not happy about something, then it is your responsibility to do something about it. That might mean changing in accordance with their preferences, or it might mean helping them understand why they are mistaken.
More than this, though, teachers should actively encourage their students to give feedback. Prompted Student Feedback is feedback that the teacher specifically requests. Again, teachers are often put off by this concept, based again on the grounds that it’s not worth it because students don’t know what’s best for them. However, if you ask the right questions, you’ll be surprised with how valuable their insights can be.
I do this on a very small scale every single lesson, and then on a larger scale periodically. Every lesson, I end with some variation on the question, “What do you know now that you did not know before?”. This allows me to see how well they were able to identify the lesson’s targets and pick out the learning objectives. I also ask how much they enjoyed certain activities that we did during the lesson, be they games we played or interactive tasks the students were asked to perform, and how much they think they will be able to use the target language outside of the classroom. These three questions help me assess the effectiveness of my delivery and my programme (syllabus) design.
At different points through a programme of learning, though, you might want to know in more detail what your students think. This can be done in a variety of formats, but will essentially be a direct questionnaire that you put to the students. With more mature and advanced students, you can simply give them a questionnaire to complete on paper. This should be more than just multiple choice questions with scales of 1–5 though; it should give the students an opportunity to express themselves and give their own thoughts, rather than just agreeing or disagreeing with yours.
A good questionnaire for an advanced class might involve questions like, “what was your favourite topic that we studied this semester?” or “which game that we played in the first half of the course would you like to play again in the second half?” or even “what did you find most difficult to understand during the programme?” with a follow up of “Do you think you understand it now? Explain it if you can.”
For younger or less advanced students, you can use a more simplified smiley face or colour coding system to allow students to demonstrate how happy or unhappy they are with certain elements of your teaching and the programme. To make it a more engaging activity, perhaps place questions separately around the classroom and have students find the questions and illustrate their response on a large piece of paper, rather than all having a sheet individually, or even ask them to raise a paper smiley face or sad face as you ask questions aloud to get an idea of what the general consensus is.
Of course, you can always conduct direct, one-on-one sessions with students and ask them to tell you what they think. This will be effective sometimes and not so other times. Students are more likely to feel pressured to say something positive in such a setting, so perhaps only the most outspoken and unabashed students will provide reliable results in this scenario.
The third source of feedback, which teachers always forget about but which is easily as important as the other two, is yourself. This type of feedback comes in the form of self-evaluation, both following individual lessons and over the greater course of a learning programme or a career.
A large part of Self Feedback can be considered Passive Student Feedback—it is the sum of the observations you make from the start to the end of every lesson. When your students are participating keenly and when they are not, when they understand and when they don’t, when they’re enjoying the learning process and when they’re resisting it. A teacher who cares about her development will take note of these changes in dynamic and evaluate them to decide what to do differently (or the same) in future.
This ongoing observation is a skill that takes time to perfect but in time will become second nature. The key is to always be thinking to yourself, “is this the best way I could be doing this”. At every stage in your lesson, every activity, every presentation, every question that you ask, look out for how the students respond and try to think if there was any better way you could be doing it. It’s by no means rare that I will spend good time planning my lessons painstakingly, given every consideration to the dynamics of my students, and then in the lesson almost immediately I set the task, think “Oh, I should have done x instead!”.
That’s fine. It does not make you a bad teacher. We cannot predict the future. Plans are supposed to be guidelines. It makes you a good teacher if you can notice these instances and adapt to improve upon them.
To really get into the routine of conducting regular Self Feedback, you can make a list of questions that you want to ask yourself after each lesson, and you can make a habit of genuinely answering those questions in writing at the end of your lesson plan. This will provide you a valuable resource when it comes to teaching review lessons or planning the following year’s syllabus.
Recently one of the teachers at my institution sent me a long list of questions that she thought would be valuable to ask after each lesson. Amy had thought of some 20 questions or more, and each one of them was important. It might not be realistic to try to answer so many questions in detail after every single lesson, but if you make a list that long, then you can use it one of two ways. Either you can implement a rotation, whereby each week you pick a different set of five questions to answer, focusing on particular elements of the teaching and learning process, a little like how you’ll focus on different muscle groups each time you visit the gym. Alternatively, you can select a few questions that you ask every single lesson, the ones that highlight the areas of most importance, and then answer the others in full on a daily or weekly basis with regard to your overall experience in that period.
To give you a head start, here are some of the questions that Amy suggested to me:
- Were my lesson objectives achieved? What were the reasons why I did/did not achieve the objectives?
- Did the pupils’ knowledge, understanding and skills match my expectations?
- Did I cover the content I planned? If not, had I been unrealistic?
- Did all students actively participate in the lesson/activities? What might have affected this?
- What key points from this evaluation can I use in planning and teaching the next lesson?
An Integrated Approach
It is certainly of most value if you can combine these three sources of feedback and make regular use of them. I find that the feedback that you get from one source will inform how you look for your feedback, or where you focus your evaluations, from the other sources.
For example, if a number of students comment on the same issue, you should look out for that particular thing in your own evaluations of your teaching. But if you can’t seem to identify the problem yourself or find a valid solution, then you can ask a peer to observe your lesson and give advice from an outside perspective.
However you combine them, though, by far the most important thing is that you act upon any and all feedback you receive. This might not mean radically changing your approach every time you come across negative feedback, but you should at least consider very carefully what you can do to make the learning process the most effective for your students.
You should also feel confident and make every effort to offer feedback to your peers. All teachers need a bit of guidance every now and then, and even the most experienced teachers can benefit from a new perspective occasionally, even from novice teachers. We must all work together as a community of teachers if we are going to ensure that our students get the best education possible. This way, we can get great results and make huge improvement even when formal professional development opportunities are not readily available.
How often do you consider feedback on your teaching? How does your institution cultivate a culture of peer support? What is the most valuable piece of feedback you’ve had from a peer observing your lesson? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!