Student Voice

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” Henry Ford (attributed)

I have mixed feelings on student voice.  First of all, we need to acknowledge that teachers are the experts and students’ opinions are interesting but not the same as their progress.  Also, you can often read a student voice report by someone and it says vague things like ‘students felt that their lessons could be more challenging’ which is such a generality as to be meaningless. On the other hand, I have definitely improved my teaching approaches and my relationships with students based on pupil responses.  As a classroom teacher, student voice is about addressing students’ perceptions of lessons and is a bit of a temperature check.  As a middle leader, it’s about supporting teachers to reflect on their lessons and to get an overview of general attitudes to the subject/ curriculum.

It’s a little like the 360 degree feedback that you get on leadership courses.  As long as you are clear that you are dealing with students perceptions then the process is useful.  Also, you need to separate the idea of fun and achievement.

When you look at the evidence Ofsted consider, the weighting of student voice is significant:

“Inspectors must spend as much time as possible gathering evidence on teaching and learning, observing lessons, scrutinising work and talking to pupils about their work, gauging their understanding and their engagement in learning, and obtaining their perceptions of typical teaching.”  As ever, my advice regarding Ofsted remains the same.  Don’t do things only for Ofsted but be pragmatic about what they are looking for and how you can ensure that your good practice will be recognised.  If you do the right things routinely then any pupil interview will show this but sometimes students can surprise you.  Preempt this by finding out and then addressing that perception.

I am just completing a student voice review for my English Department, and the following are my thoughts on the process:

As a HoD/SLT/Person conducting the review

Get the questions right.

Think of it in terms of ‘what do I want to know?’ and then ‘what question will tell me that?’  Also, try to ensure that the questions are about the learning, not the teacher. Inevitably, students link their experiences to the teacher, but focussing in on the quality of learning goes some way to avoid this being ‘do you like your teacher?’  Make it a mix of questions which can be easily analysed e.g. scales from 1-10, tick boxes etc and questions which require a more detailed response.

One student’s memorable lesson was the one where they told Chuck Norris jokes.

In this student voice, I phrased a question: ‘What was your most memorable lesson?’ My thinking being that it would highlight lessons where students made good progress and where they enjoyed themselves too- lessons we want to have plenty of.  However, I read through the responses: ‘when there was a power cut’, ‘when Mr Paddy did an impression of Mr Miller’ and, my favourite: ‘when Lewis said testicles’.  The information was hardly useful and a better question would have helped. We will rephrase that question in future.

Even the order of the questions is important.  You will tend to see detailed responses for the first few questions but less detailed ones later on.  You must also consider the fact that some students will be unable to articulate their views in writing.  Talking to students in addition to the questionnaire will help.

Use technology

This is the right time to use technology.  We use a google form and this allows the responses to be easily collated.  There are some tools that allow you to get information instantly and visually.  It can also be shared easily with teachers and exported to Excel for further analysis.  Other tools are available such as Surveymonkey.

Consider Context

If you are conducting a pupil voice which encompasses a range of teachers and year groups, you have to take into account that some will have e.g. completed the student voice just after a really engaging starter.  Another teacher may have had a difficult lesson the day before with that class and had to phone 5 parents.  There are all sorts of variables that increase the distortion of the data.  The trick is to identify the broad brush strokes which emerge from all of that.  Think also of the time of year- are year 10s competing student voice after the exam or after reading the last page of Of Mice and Men?  This will affect their perception of the subject.

A case in point: I have just finished teaching An Inspector Calls for controlled assessment.  I do not enjoy controlled assessment and I find it a tricky proposition.  I have recently delivered teacher talk heavy lessons.  I would rather not but I am pragmatic and know that the marks this year are much higher than last year when I went for a more co-constructive approach.  I still need to accept that many students mentioned that I talk too much but I have to also understand that this would not necessarily have come up in the week students were writing letters in pairs or taking part in critique sessions- or even during the time we were reading the play.  I also know that when I spoke about growth mindsets I discussed a target I was given by an observer to reduce teacher talk so this was already ingrained in students’ minds.  If I ask a question designed to look for something to improve, it is perhaps more likely that it will come up.  However I still need to deal with that perception (see ‘remember it is their perception’ below) and this feedback should not be dismissed out of hand.

Let the teachers deal with the micro-details

I had a lengthy passage on my survey from a student who was expressing their concerns, knowing it would be read.  It made for difficult reading but was thoughtful and enlightening, not malicious.  I would be really uncomfortable with someone else reading that out of context and having to ‘have a word’ with me.  Teachers know about the student who is going to give them a ‘bad report’ and will also be able to deal with those very unique situations where a problem is identified.  While I appreciate there may be significant issues that a student voice brings up, if teachers are concerned that this is another method where they are being ‘judged’ then you will find that the net result of student voice is negative.  Student voice will throw up issues which teachers as professionals will wish to address but it can’t be a stick to beat them with. Give the results back to them, let them look into the issues and trust them to respond to the feedback.  We need to avoid student voice becoming, as the NASUWT warn, a ‘development of strategies which involve little more than opinion surveying of pupils and strategies which privilege pupils in a way that undermines, disempowers and deprofessionalises teachers.’

As a classroom teacher

You may have been asked to do this as part of a departmental or a school monitoring system.  You may choose to do this yourself.  Either way, there are a number of considerations for you:

Consider how it is delivered

Explain to students why this is important.  Remind them that everything will be read but anything which is unhelpful will be ignored.  If they are going to say anything negative ask them to try and frame it as a positive.  ‘In the lessons where you would say the opposite, what is going on?’  Don’t do it in 5 minutes at the end or rush through it.  If it is part of a departmental review and the results will go to someone else, consider whether you want to let them know as it will affect what students write.  For most students, it is a chance to get their voice heard in a positive way but boy will some students take advantage.

Remember it is their perception

None of this is fact.  If you ask students to write down their writing target and they write down ‘I don’t know’ then it is true that they don’t know it but it doesn’t mean that they haven’t been given one.  Whatever way you look at it, that student is not aware of the target you took the time to give them so you need to address that.  If they say that lessons are boring then they may think that but it doesn’t mean that lessons are objectively boring.  As I said in the introduction, a good analogy is in 360 degree leadership feedback.  If you receive feedback and someone states that you are ‘not a good listener’ then it is only that they feel you are not a good listener.  However, every time they approach you, they have that in their mind and it deeply affects your interaction- whether you are a bad listener or not- and you need to think about how this perception can be changed. (or you might actually be a bad listener!)

Read it all.

Make sure that you read your responses fully.  If it is part of a wider student voice, ask for the results from your class/ read through the responses before they are passed on.  Read each and every one and consider whether it is offering you any helpful perspective on the individual’s experience, whether there are any patterns.  Be very open to anything that will help you in the classroom.  While we cannot consider students experts, they do observe more lessons than we do and if they are able to articulate their experiences then you can learn a great deal.

Don’t take it personally

There will be the odd student who takes an opportunity to have a little dig.  When you trust students to complete something anonymously, some will seize their chance.  Equally, when there is something which you deem as a negative issue in a class, look at the next steps.  My year 11s wrote positive things about the team teaching I did with the Head Teacher.  One phrased it in a way that made it clear that they thought he was a much much better teacher than me.  I take this to mean that we should get him in to the lesson more often.

And it works for positive things too. I was interested by a couple of students from my former year 10 class last year talking about how much they learnt through fun games on An Inspector Calls.  As I mentioned before, fun is not progress, and broadly speaking, these students didn’t perform as well in that essay as in their spoken language.  Ego deflated and evidence again that things need to be seen in context.

Beware false positives

I have coined that term for the occasion where someone in the class says ‘Sir, can I say that you need to make your lessons more interesting’ and then several students write that too.  This relates to that ‘context’ section earlier.  Something like this could indicate a pattern of feeling in the class but often is not the case.  One of my year 8s said ‘I liked the lesson where [our PGCE student] gave us chocolates.’  I thought that was a great lesson too as it happens but I can’t tell if all the other responses were influenced by that answer.

Comments on this post will be gratefully received.




4 thoughts on “Student Voice

  1. Hi

    Great piece and one that mirrors my own experience. As an advocate of asking the opinion of my students, i sometimes find that SLT confuse student opinion with absolute informed fact.

    We (the teachers) are the trained professionals who have training, experience and knowledge to make informed choices about the classroom environment. Our learners have an opinion based on personal preferences, experiences and their own agendas.

    Ask a child if they want chocolate and most will say yes, even if a healthy apple would be better. I find the same with student voice.

    Every student voice survey always returns “we like using laptops” so, SLT buy more laptops. “We want to use phones” so phones are sanctioned in school.

    Dont get me wrong, respecting the views of our learners is essential, but respect means listening, not always giving in to and saying “yes”.

    We have a particular teacher who always scores highly on student voice “satisfaction” but the same teacher is constantly off curriculum and has been taken to the edge of competency on two occasions.

    As someone once said… Whats popular is not always right and what’s right is not always popular.

    • Thanks for your comments Glen.
      I think the key is to be open to what any student voice tells us and let it add to the picture. Good feedback can be really useful but there are times when you have to take it with a pinch of salt- what students want and what they need can be quite different!

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