US student survey that could teach us a thing or two

3rd October 2014 at 01:00
Big names back technology that gathers meaningful feedback

Teachers are experts at assessing their students and working out how they can improve. But now, thanks to new technology backed by the likes of Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and Google, pupils can turn the tables.

The Panorama Student Survey tool, pioneered in the US by Panorama Education, is designed to ask pertinent questions of students in a class survey and then crunch the data, giving teachers immediate feedback on where they are succeeding and where they need to do better.

The idea is the brainchild of three Yale graduates, Aaron Feuer, Xan Tanner and David Carel, who founded Panorama Education after identifying a lack of valid teacher feedback in schools. The firm was started just two years ago but has already attracted $4 million (pound;2.46 million) in investment from some big names, including Zuckerberg, Google Ventures and actor Ashton Kutcher. Zuckerberg was so impressed by the idea that it was the first education project the billionaire invested in via his not-for-profit organisation Startup:Education.

It is now being used in thousands of high schools across the US - and Mr Feuer, 23, said he hoped he could bring it to the UK to "cross-pollinate ideas" and learn from each other.

According to Mr Feuer, the idea for the venture blossomed when he was at school in Los Angeles, where he was among a group of students pushing to give teachers feedback. "When we looked into this properly there were two things we noticed that were stopping this from taking off," he said.

"Teachers always say they want to get their students' feedback but when they get it back often the data isn't that helpful. The reason is because they're not asking the right questions."

Too often, student surveys would ask questions that were too subjective, such as "Do you like your teacher?" Mr Feuer explained, whereas Panorama Education's questionnaires ask "How often are you confused in class?" or "Do you feel like your teacher cares about what you do after you graduate?".

"What we also found out was that it was too hard for schools themselves to actually do it," he said. "If you are a teacher and you want to survey 100 kids, tally the data, analyse it, make it into a beautiful report, make it easy to read and easy to understand, and then bring in national comparison information.that's where it gets interesting. It's something that seems so simple but when you try to do it, it turns out it's not so easy."

In the US, teacher evaluation has become controversial owing to teachers being ranked, in some states, by how well their students do in test scores. In some cases, teachers' pay, and even whether they keep their jobs, are tied to pupils' exam results.

As a result, teacher unions have called for teacher evaluations to be based on more than just a single grade or test score. Panorama Education's surveys are now taken by every student in the Los Angeles Unified School District, one of the biggest districts in the US, as part of their teacher evaluations.

"Over the past decade there's been a big push to use test scores in teacher evaluation, which is pretty controversial," Mr Feuer said. "What a lot of the unions [say their members] are saying is, `test scores don't capture that I am a great teacher, I want this to be more rounded', so the unions would much rather [our surveys are included in the picture]."

Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor at the Institute of Education, University of London, said feedback was tremendously powerful to help the profession improve, but he had concerns when it was employed to evaluate staff. "It is a really powerful tool when used to hold up a mirror to the teacher, because then they can see how to improve," he said.

"But I worry when it is used to evaluate teachers. Once that starts to happen, teachers stop challenging their students because the students give better feedback if the tests they are given are easy, if the teacher is nice to them."

Mr Feuer said that one of the first questions teachers asked was whether the technology was designed to help them or to be used against them. "It is absolutely a tool designed to help teachers, there is no point undermining them," he said. Students answer the surveys, consisting of between 10 and 40 questions, throughout the term. They can take between five and 25 minutes to complete. "The longer the survey, the more nuanced the questions become but the more class time it takes," he added.

Pupils are always asked to complete questionnaires in class. "If we sent surveys home we might not get every student's score," Mr Feuer said. "It's just as important to hear from the kid who doesn't do their homework as it is from the one who does."

Following his success in the US, Mr Feuer hopes to bring the technology to UK classrooms. "The future would be to learn and to cross-pollinate ideas," he said. "Then we can actually learn something from what students say in the UK that matters for students in the US."

How it works

  • Teachers use the system to survey students throughout the school year. Each survey consists of 10-40 questions.
  • Surveys are carried out in class so all students respond.
  • The length of questionnaire is often determined by how detailed the feedback needs to be and how much class time can be spared.
  • Panorama Education analyses responses and relays the data back to the teacher or school. It gives each teacher's performance a percentage score, which can then be compared with others.

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