It is common practice in many schools in the U.S. to survey students about their experiences. These surveys typically ask students to share their perspectives on school cleanliness and climate, their sense of belonging and safety, their engagement in school, their relationships with teachers, and other topics. The data generated can be useful for identifying problem areas that may be adversely affecting student learning and achievement.
Findings can suggest a starting point for action plans and improvement efforts. Recent work has underscored the importance of collecting and attending to this “street data,” as it can help “root equity, pedagogy, and school transformation in what matters most: human experience” (Safir & Dugan, 2021, p. 12).
At the classroom level, some teachers also administer student surveys to garner students’ perceptions on their experiences in the class. Similar to the kinds of evaluations that college professors (are required to) give their students at the end of a course, classroom student experience surveys may ask how challenged or respected students felt in the class, what kind of instructional activities they would like more or less of, and how much students felt they learned. Like their school-level counterparts, these classroom student experience surveys represent important tools for not only pinpointing areas for improvement, but also measuring the impact of any change efforts. Readministering such surveys periodically can help determine whether change efforts resulted in any discernable differences for students.
Our research with middle and high school students across the country affirms that students are well accustomed to these surveys, especially at the school level. However, we also find that students remain dubious of their utility. Although students complete the surveys honestly and with the hope that their candor will lead to change, rarely do they see what comes of the results. Students tell us they see neither the survey data nor any changes made because of them. This lack of a feedback loop can breed skepticism about how seriously adults take students’ reports on these surveys.
We are learning that when it comes to student experience surveys, three things can help foster greater trust between students and administrators: timing, transparency, and taking action.
- Timing. Often surveys are administered late in the school year. While this timing may allow students to reflect on their experiences over the course of the year, it prevents real-time adjustments that respond to emergent trends in the data. Administrators and teachers might consider disseminating shorter, more targeted surveys more regularly, such as every three months. The risk of engendering survey fatigue can be mitigated by following the next two principles, which help establish a culture of transparency and responsiveness, making students more inclined to participate the next time they are asked.
- Transparency. Sharing the results or high-level findings from student experience surveys with the students who responded is an important first step in helping students feel that the time they invest in completing the survey is worthwhile and their insights are valued. Such sharing sends a powerful message that adults in the school not only care about students’ experiences and perspectives but also respect them enough to entrust them with findings that may highlight deficiencies in the school. In the absence of such transparency, students are left to wonder if their views were ignored, discounted, or cherry-picked to serve adult agendas.
- Taking Action. More than the high-level findings from the survey, students want to know how the data they supplied will inform any minor modifications, new initiatives, or broader reform agendas. When adults explain to students what they learned from the survey results and how this learning will guide shifts in practice or policy, students will come to see the adult decision-makers as more receptive and responsive to their needs and concerns. Perceived responsiveness fortifies a culture of trust and helps create the conditions in which students will share their concerns or ideas for improvement with adult decision-makers, even when they are not asked on surveys. A growing body of research suggests that a school context with ample opportunities and support for “student voice” can lead to better developmental and academic outcomes (Anderson et al., 2022; Kahne et al., 2022; Mitra, 2018).
Taken together, the three T’s discussed above can help ensure that the student experience data used in improvement efforts are valid, meaningful indicators of students’ needs; however, we posit that the full power of student experience surveys can be unlocked with a 4th “T”: Teaming Up. Specifically, we argue for teaming up with students to design, interpret, and act upon the results of student experience surveys. Students may think to ask questions that adults may not, and because they know their peers in ways that adults do not, they may have a better way of asking a question than their adult counterparts. Additionally, students may see different trends in the data and novel ways to take action in response to the data. As examples from the Challenge Success program and Up for Learning’s work with schools demonstrate, students can be meaningfully engaged in collaborating with adults to write student experience survey questions, analyze the data, formulate action plans based on the findings, implement the plans, and assess their impact. The insight and perspective that students can bring to school or classroom improvement efforts represent an untapped store of expertise for many schools.
When school leaders recognize students as thought partners, they go beyond valuing the student experience to valuing student voice in their experiences. If we only ask students to share their experiences on an adult-created survey, then we miss important opportunities not only to foster vital critical thinking and collaborative problem-solving skills, but also to design improvements that stand to benefit all students.
Jerusha Conner is Professor of Education at Villanova University and the author of The New Student Activists and co-editor of Student Voice in American Education Policy.
Dana Mitra is Professor of Education in Education Policy Studies at Penn State University and the author of several books, including Student Voice in School Reform.
Samantha E. Holquist, PhD, is an education researcher who focuses creating culturally sustaining and equitable K-12 learning environments.
The authors acknowledge with gratitude Paula Akakpo, Bailey Bonds, Nikki Cohron, Enrique Rosado, and Amy Syvertsen, whose contributions to data collection, analysis, and/or project management have been invaluable. The authors also appreciate the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, particularly that of Michelle Feist, Adam Goldfarb, and Chaya Jones.