School Improvement Episode 38: Acting on student feedback

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Thanks for downloading this podcast from Teacher magazine. I’m Dominique Russell. In today’s episode, we’re speaking with Dr Ilana Finefter-Rosenbluh, a Lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Monash University, who has recently published a paper sharing the findings of a study she conducted with her colleagues looking into the impact of student perception surveys on teachers’ practice.

Are student perception surveys something you utilise in your school setting? If they are, how effectively are you using the feedback given to you by your students? Do you feel as though you are well-equipped as a teacher to act on this feedback? If your answer is no, and you’re instead left feeling overwhelmed and unsure how to approach acting on this feedback, you’re definitely not alone.

This study found that students tend to see no significant change in teacher practice after completing student perception surveys, and that while teachers value the insights given by student perception surveys, they need more support to be able to act on the feedback in a productive way.

In our discussion today, Ilana will share some key details of the findings from this study and also share some practical strategies teachers can look to implement how in order to improve their practice in this area. Let’s jump in.

Dominique Russell: Thank you so much Illana for joining me on this podcast episode today. It's great to be able to chat in detail about this research that you've conducted. I thought to kick things off it would be great to find out why this particular study was important for yourself and your colleagues to conduct?

Ilana Finefter-Rosenbluh: Thanks Dominique for inviting me today.

Sure. So, as educators, we know how much assessment plays in shaping day-to-day work and students’ experiences in schools. We know for a fact that effective assessment tools can really help teachers get a really good sense of their learners’ needs and their progress and their whole-rounded experiences in the classroom.

But, what was unclear to us was whether this type of student voice-based assessment tool actually works, or to what extent does it work? We found it very interesting that, despite the fact that student perception surveys to assess teaching are being used for many years in schools (in American schools for example) – and we are not talking obviously about higher education settings where it's even a more common practice there – so despite that, and despite the rise in education companies that provide such survey services to countless districts, still we don't know much about how these surveys effect teachers per se.

We know there is some promising research on the usefulness of student surveys and, yes, there is much literature that discusses these tools’ reliability and validity and accuracy, but there isn't really much about their influence. So, we decided to delve into this and check what teachers actually think about using student perception surveys and what their experience is.

DR: And so, specifically, this study involved two Victorian secondary schools and you had students complete two student perception surveys in English, Science and Mathematics (one was towards the beginning of the year and the other one was more towards the end of the year). You then also held students focus groups and teacher interviews too. But let's look at the student perception surveys themselves first – as part of the research you compared the first and the second surveys. I'm interested what that comparison told you.

IFR: Yeah, so just some background, how it worked, this whole study … We wanted to measure change in teachers practice as students see it over the course of the year. We wanted to see what happens in a naturalistic and authentic context. So, the first round of surveys took place at about two months after the beginning of the year, because obviously it's important to make sure that the students actually know their teachers and they were able to consider its questions.

We had seven main aspects that we focused on in this survey that we adapted from a very well-established student survey in the [United] States. We looked at aspects such as pedagogical effectiveness, rigorous expectations, engagement, teacher-student relationships, valuing of subject, belonging.

For rigorous expectations for example, the students reflected on questions like How much does this teacher encourage you to do your best? or for pedagogical effectiveness we had a question like How good is this teacher at teaching the way that personally you learn best? Etcetera.

So, then each scale or aspect had a few closed-ended items that were measured (it was from one to five) and so higher scores on each scale showed more positive student perceptions. We also had a free comment section for students to share more feedback. We gave the same exact survey to the same exact students in the same exact class with the same exact teachers a few months later to measure that change in practice.

Looking at the results they showed no significant change from time one to time two – so basically teachers didn't really change their practice in response to the student feedback, as the students saw it. So, we wanted to delve even deeper into this and ask them what happened.

DR: And so bringing in the forums that you help with these students as well, and also still considering the data that you had from the surveys, can you share how the students (broadly) tend to view their teachers’ responses to feedback? You say it seemed like there was no change in teacher practice from their perspective.

IFR: Yeah, so we met with over 30 students out of the almost 900 students who took the survey twice (by the way, we had more students, we just wanted to make sure that we focused on the same students). We interviewed these 30 students at the end of the year to get a better sense of their thoughts about this whole assessment process.

It's really important to mention that using such surveys was not a new experience for the students. So, the schools we focused on were schools with a very solid and rich culture of student voice. These schools, they celebrate student voice and they have plenty of student-led activities. So for these students, as they told us, it was just another experience, it was actually another example of what they've been experiencing over the years with similar student surveys – so it wasn't something new to them.

Basically, what they told us was that the intentions are good, using these surveys is a very good idea, but not much is happening after that – so, there is no follow up. And it was interesting, because they had an idea of why nothing really happens.

First of all they told us ‘we don't really think that we have so much of a voice, despite the school’s message and culture’. And I think it relates to the second opinion, to the second thing that they told us, that was they said they actually questioned their teachers’ willingness and capability to take the survey data and translate it into tangible actions.

So, they said that while some teachers mentioned this survey before and after its implementation, and they did say something about the survey, they didn't really say anything about the survey itself in terms of unpacking the survey, including about its results. So, basically, the students saw the teachers as either having this very clear, fixed idea of what decent pedagogy is or how good [the] classroom culture is, or should look like, and so the survey doesn't really change anything. It's a good thing to have but it doesn't really change much.

The other perspective that the students shared with us was that the teachers’ intentions, again, they're good, but they don't really know how to change things or act upon the feedback. One student, for example, told us that she truly, truly believes that her teachers care about her and her peers’ feedback but they just have too much on their plate and they’re too busy to think about the survey and think about potential ways to change their practice based on such feedback. So, definitely the students had these very complex perceptions of what happens with the surveys and they had some ideas of why.

Coming up, Ilana will share what was found from the teacher interviews conducted as part of this study, and some strategies teachers can implement to help improve their practice in responding to feedback. But first, he’s a quick message from our sponsor.

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DR: And so, let's move on to the teacher perspectives then, because as we've mentioned you did conduct some teacher interviews too. So, what did they tell you about their feelings towards the student perception surveys? Was there any match-up between what the students were saying and what the teachers were reporting?

IRF: Yes definitely. So I would say interestingly, like the students, the teachers also had mixed responses to the use of these surveys. Many of them saw the student feedback as something insightful, something that is more suitable, makes more sense and can actually be more effective than other and more common assessment tools. So, for example, some teachers told us that they have learned much more about their students and their needs than they have ever learned from NAPLAN, from standardised tests.

So, learning about their students’ complex experiences in class – for example whether they have a sense of belonging, or how they see their relationship with them, or what they think about their pedagogy. The teachers actually they really appreciated having these whole rounded data, they really appreciated it, but at the same time they were not sure what to do with all this and how to act upon this in a meaningful way. Many of them were overwhelmed by the data, they were not sure how to react, so they just left it as is.

And so one teacher, for example, told us that many of her students didn't feel like they belong in class; that they felt like no one cares about them and they don't care about each other. She was concerned, and she decided to go back and ask them ‘what's going on?’, ‘what do you think we should do?’, but they didn't have the answers either to this question. So, basically it left her even more confused. This is only one of many other similar stories we heard from teachers.

So, thinking about this experience, the teachers I would say they highlighted the need for a support system that could actually help them work with student surveys and they will be able to benefit from it. So, it's not just having these surveys but it's actually doing something with these surveys.

It became very clear that any meaningful survey implementation needs to be coupled with some kind of training. The focus can be on one or two teaching aspects, rather than a few, and there should be some kind of a professional development program that helps the teachers reflect on the data, unpack it and help them act upon it.

So there needs to be this institutional support in the sense of not just having these surveys for the sake of having them, and assessing teaching and related experiences for the sake of assessment, but there should be a plan or system that provides enough time and space for the teachers to share the data with their colleagues, learn from each other, from their experiences, and provide and receive advice.

The teachers, I have to say they also told us that any such survey process should involve some conversations with the educational leaders around what they expect them to do or how to do things differently, if at all. So, it should be a process that moves the discourse from assessment to improvement; assessment and improvement.

DR: And to pick up on another example from your report that I found quite interesting that was about prioritising the feedback that a teacher receives from these student perception surveys. One of the teachers in your study mentioned that they found it quite challenging to act on the feedback because they felt like they couldn't, particularly when feedback from one student directly contradicted feedback from another student in the same classroom. So, his example was ‘some of my students say I give too much homework others say I give too little’. I'm interested then was there any evidence of teachers in this study acting on feedback by prioritising it in the way that this particular teacher said he wished he could do, or was that something still that was quite challenging? Because that still must be quite an overwhelming task.

IFR: Yeah, well some teachers did decide to focus on one or two aspects, actually looking at one question. Like that teacher that I that I told you about, the belonging, who prioritised her students feedback on their sense of belonging in class. So, I would say like that teacher, some teachers went back to their students with their survey feedback to ask for further clarifications with the intention to really open a dialogue, open this collaborative discussion about one aspect or question and learn more about their students’ needs.

It is definitely a matter of priority and it's their decision, but it can still be quite challenging to do without having some kind of a support system. So even with that teacher who went back to her students and asking them about their sense of belonging, her intentions were good, but she needed that support system to help her not only prioritise the feedback but to unpack the feedback and act upon it.

DR: And another point just to pick up on in this same area is that, again, teachers mentioned they felt quite lost when they were given feedback relating to curriculum or unit topics in these surveys because that's something that's outside of their scope, it's not something that they can directly act on themselves. So how does this feedback impact a teachers’ autonomy, because that's another topic that you mentioned in the report that's quite important, isn't it?

IFR: Yeah, that is a very interesting point that reminds us of the important role of teacher voice no less than student voice in shaping practices of assessment.

So interestingly enough I must say, the student survey focused on teaching aspects rather than curricular aspects – it was more about the students’ perceptions of teaching dimensions, like pedagogical effectiveness and teacher-student relationships and the way they are communicated or translated in the classroom, rather than about curriculum standards per se.

So even in a scale like valuing of subject, the students were asked teaching related questions such as how interestingly the class was taught, right, considering the teacher is part and parcel of the process and can actually make a change. So what we need to remember when we think about such teacher reflections, is that the way a change can happen could be by genuinely involving teachers and students in the assessment process, especially like these, to really make sure everybody's on the same page and their voice is heard.

So, it is really important to make sure that a teacher’s autonomy is increased and maintained in such processes to help increase their empowerment and professionalism, which we know that is crucial for job satisfaction and good practice.

DR: And so just finally then I'm conscious of the fact that we have spoken about in this conversation the importance of putting support structures in place to allow these teachers to act on this feedback in a productive way. Are there any strategies that you have though for teachers who are listening to this episode and thinking ‘I want to get started on improving my practice in this area right away’. Were there any other strategies that the educators mentioned that can be quite impactful in helping them with the within this area, that are outside of this structure supports?

IFR: Sure. There is tremendous power in collaborative work and learning from success. We know that sharing successful strategies and teaching-related approaches with colleagues can really improve practice.

But I must say, research tells us how educators who contemplate with their colleagues on both challenging and successful experiences – so it's not only about success it's also about the challenges – so reflecting on and unpacking these challenges and successful experiences can really improve not only teachers’ practice, but can also improve their classroom environment. And again, it is based on literature, and we know it compared to educators who only share and discuss problematic experiences. So, we need to have these two dimensions together.

So schools and educators, I would say they, could greatly benefit from the integration of systematic learning from both challenging and successful experiences with student surveys. Teachers can develop their capacity to promote students’ experiences by, I would say, working more collaboratively with their colleagues, hearing about their feedback, learning from their practices.

So, there is nothing new under the sun. They all got this feedback and they can unpack it together, and they can give advice to each other and they can support each other; and one may have some really great ideas when it comes to belonging, and the other may have some wonderful things to share when it comes to pedagogical effectiveness. So, we just need to make sure that we collaborate and we have this dialogue and support each other.

That’s all for this episode. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next week with our monthly episode of Teacher Staffroom. So you don’t miss out, be sure to subscribe to our podcast channel wherever you get your podcasts from. If you’d like to keep listening now, you can access the hundreds of episodes already in our archive, and don’t forget, the full transcript for each episode is available at our website,

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References and related reading

Finefter-Rosenbluh, I., Ryan, T. & Barnes, M. (2021). The impact of student perception surveys on teachers’ practice: Teacher resistance and struggle in student voice-based assessment initiatives of effective teaching. Teaching and Teacher Education, 106, 103436

Finefter-Rosenbluh, I., Barnes, M. & Ryan, T. (2021, November 26). Schools are surveying students to improve teaching. But many teachers find the feedback too difficult to act on. The Conversation.

As a school leader, reflect on how you utilise student voice in your school context. If you use student perception surveys, what structures are in place for utilising the data that come from these? When was the last time they were reviewed? Do you know how supported your staff feel to act on student feedback? Do they have the time and resources to prioritise it?

As a classroom teacher, reflect on how you currently use student feedback to inform your practice. If your students complete student perception surveys, is there room to implement Dr Ilana Finefter-Rosenbluh’s recommended strategy of working collaboratively with your colleagues to share your successes and challenges?