Utilizing Student Feedback in the Curriculum Development Process

Every hour a teacher spends on preparation, from professional education to curriculum design, is to help students understand the lesson. And yet that endpoint, the student experience, is missing from the curriculum development of many teachers.

Curriculum development is the process by which a teacher decides what to teach and how. It has multiple stages, moving from the broadest scope to the narrowest:

  • Process or product: Every teacher has to decide whether to measure success through grades or progress in learning. Even if schools dictate how to evaluate students, teachers can still choose the curriculum culture of their classrooms.
  • Goal setting: Benchmarks are the foundations of a curriculum. They ensure students are on track for success. Teachers have to decide not only what they are but also how to measure them.
  • Lesson design: Teachers create lessons and units to help students master material.
  • Re-evaluation: Using student work, teachers determine whether the current curriculum is adequate or in need of adjustment.

When teachers understand how to gather useful feedback and apply it in the fourth step, they can better target lessons to students’ needs.

Learning Opportunities in Student Feedback

The best feedback benefits both students and teachers. It focuses constructively on student accomplishments and how to help them progress further. Asking questions such as the ones outline below can help you elicit this kind of information from students.

1. What can the student do?

For students to learn, they have to believe they are capable. You can help by pointing out how much a student has learned or improved in class. An article published in the Annual Review of Psychology reported that students are most successful when their schools emphasize growth and mastery rather than goals or competition. When students reflect on what they have learned, they gain confidence in learning, and their teachers can better design lessons to build on existing mastery.

2. What can’t the student do yet?

You can only plan lessons effectively if you know what students have yet to master. This is the concept behind formative assessment, a mid-unit evaluation method that compares student achievement to the goals of the curriculum. Sharing what knowledge gaps may exist can be productive if the conversation is framed properly. However, students in some situations may find it discouraging. You should consider the approach for each student separately.

3. How does the student’s work compare to that of their peers?

You can learn a great deal by comparing students’ work. A student who is behind the rest of the class, for example, may need some one-on-one attention, but if multiple students are falling behind, there may be a shortfall in the instruction.

4. How can the student do better?

Once you’ve identified the knowledge gaps in your classroom and possible causes, it’s time to help students meet their goals. This means looking at student performance from a content perspective. Ask yourself:

  • What content delivery methods and activities helped each student most in the past?
  • Which methods didn’t work?
  • Is there any connection between the type of knowledge gained and the method of delivery?

Answering these questions can help teachers move students toward mastery in more areas.

Methods for Obtaining Student Feedback

As soon as you know what you need to ask students, the next step is to decide how to present those questions. Different options will work with different grade levels and classroom cultures. Here are some common techniques that you can use or adapt, depending on your students’ needs and yours.

Formal evaluations

Formal evaluations are traditional in higher education for eliciting feedback from students. Secondary students with the maturity to provide constructive feedback may also find the process empowering. When presenting evaluations, you need to emphasize the importance of honest, constructive feedback. Students should know that both compliments and critiques are welcome, and specific examples are more useful than general ones.

Evaluations typically come at the end of a course, but mid-year or mid-semester evaluations are even more helpful. They allow you to adjust lessons to suit the needs of current students. In this case, it is important for the feedback to be anonymous. Otherwise, some students may hold back to protect their grades.

Simple surveys

Formal evaluations can be too overwhelming for some students, especially younger ones. Customizable short-form surveys can simplify the process. Consider using prompts such as:

  • “I learned more easily this year when . . .”
  • “I found it harder to learn when . . .”
  • “If I could tell my teacher one thing about my learning this year, it would be . . .”
  • “One thing I wish my teacher would do differently is . . .”

The youngest students may need an even simpler approach involving yes or no questions. Thumbs-up or thumbs-down responses or signaling with colored paper (green for yes and red for no) works nicely. With this method, have students put their heads down to encourage honesty.

Focus groups

In a focus group format, teachers and students engage each other in discussion. The students feel heard, and the teacher can ask students to clarify feedback or offer suggestions. To conduct a focus group in your classroom, ask for student volunteers to lead focus groups. All students fill out short surveys asking what worked and what didn’t in the classroom, and the volunteer leaders discuss the questions and answers with their peer groups. Volunteers report the responses back to the teacher in an informal meeting.

Individual conferences

It’s hard to find time for one-on-one student conferences, but the payoff is enormous. Conferences give students space and confidentiality to talk about their struggles, successes and if anything is preventing them from learning effectively. Conferences work best when they take place at regular intervals throughout the year. Even quarterly or mid-term conferences can inform your curriculum design and help them better meet students’ needs.

Mastering Curriculum and Instruction

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