Listening to Those at the Center of Blended Learning

January 2, 2018 |

By Jen Vorse Wilka, YouthTruth

As schools make the transition to blended learning, one of the greatest resources to support the process is right in front of us – students! There is much excitement about the potential of blended learning to combine high quality in-person instruction with online technology to deliver student-centered learning experiences. But what does it look and feel like to put students’ perspectives about their learning experiences at the center of innovation efforts?

The Case for Student Feedback

At YouthTruth – a national nonprofit that harnesses student and stakeholder feedback to help accelerate improvements – we believe, and the research shows, that student perceptions are linked to, and indeed predictive of, their academic outcomes. Student feedback helps us meet students where they are, affirm when we are on the right path, and serve as an early warning system when things may not be going according to plan.

Student feedback can measure things like agency and student self-direction that are at the core of blended learning but are hard to quantify with traditional assessments. Because student perception data lends itself to a rapid feedback cycle, insights from students can help guide decision making and fine tune implementation. And, importantly, when we place student feedback at the center of transformation efforts, it gives students a voice as true partners and participants. The change taking place is something their opinions are helping to shape, rather than something that is happening to them.

Student Feedback in Raising Blended Learners

YouthTruth recently partnered with the five Raise Your Hand Texas Raising Blended Learners demonstration sites to incorporate baseline and ongoing student feedback as the districts transition to blended learning models.

We invited every student at all schools across the five demonstration sites to share their perspectives on key aspects of their school experiences – from engagement to relationships with teachers and peers, from motivation and ownership over their learning, to experience rigor in the classroom and the culture of their school. In all, we heard from 10,113 students who provided baseline survey data and 12,041 students in Year 1; additionally, we convened 22 conversations with school leaders to debrief the data and early learnings.

In the early phases of the initiative, each site established a set of SMART goals with both academic and non-academic indicators to measure the progress of their blended learning pilot. All Raising Blended Learners sites are tracking student achievement through non-academic and academic measures. Sites use perception data as a key non academic indicator to track progress, prompt reflection, and better understand the experiences of their students as schools roll out new, often very different, learning models.

While the school model changes varied, some common themes emerged as sites began using student feedback in in their journey to blended learning.

Get Ready for Honesty

The YouthTruth survey synthesizes not only quantitative data points, but also qualitative comments in students own words. Student comments are indexed by grade level, strengths/weaknesses, and theme to help educators make sense of patterns in the data. Reading those student comments was poignant for educators, causing them to wrestle with what students were really thinking and feeling. Sometimes the comments contained glowing sentiments, and sometimes they were quite harsh – but across the board, students spoke their truth.

For many districts, reading those comments, and embracing how students felt about what was not working with the status quo, was catalytic. The YouthTruth data was transformative for personnel who may have felt that they “knew” how their students felt, but had never actually heard the students communicate their feelings so freely and honestly. Teams had seen their academic data many times, but it was the powerful student voice data and honest, open ended responses from their students that prompted change. After grappling with this honest feedback, teams were much more ready to dive into critical topics such as student agency, engagement, relationships, and motivation. 

“As a campus leader, the results were mind-blowing for me to read. When we administered the survey, we made sure to tell students that their honest replies were needed. Some of the comments brought me to tears because I realized that we had been missing the mark. We thought we were addressing student feelings and providing a campus of support when in fact, our efforts were not at ALL what students wanted or needed.  Reading their words provided direct purpose for our campus, it was immediate, real-time, and specific – it was exactly what we needed to hear.  If one student felt a certain way, it then became a focus of ours. This survey truly provided the means for change to occur on our campus.” Roneka Lee / Principal, Bondy Intermediate

Anticipate Mixed Reactions to Emotional Feedback

While student perception data is a powerful catalyst, it is necessary to carve out time and support to grapple with the data. We found that in the Raising Blended Learners sites – as in our experiences working with districts across the country – students share both positive and critical feedback. And processing that feedback can be emotional. Data representing how students experienced your class, your staff, or your school can feel quite different than academic data. And it can elicit some strong reactions – perhaps initially feeling defensive or dismissive of the data, or downplaying the more negative aspects of the feedback – especially if the data challenges existing adult perceptions or expectations.

“Sharing the survey results with staff generated mixed emotions, but has definitely been insightful as we reflect on what our students are saying about their school and classroom experiences. While some teachers celebrated the student feedback (with good reason), others wanted to quickly dismiss the more negative comments stating that some students may not have taken the survey seriously or may not have understood the questions being asked. Despite the range of adult interpretation, a disconnect between teacher and student perceptions was evident to many staff members. The survey results, our students’ voices, along with other measures have prompted the district and campuses to make school culture and instructional design changes. Although the journey is challenging, decisions around change are grounded in data (which includes student input thanks to YouthTruth) and ultimately allows us to push ourselves to cultivate a better learning experience for all students.” DJ Canales, Technology Administrator, Point Isabel ISD.

Processing and accepting student feedback requires a certain degree of vulnerability. The YouthTruth team worked in close partnership with the CA Group to support district and school leaders through these emotions, and help them anticipate staff reactions and in turn support and coach staff in productively processing the data.

Make it Stick with Resources and Support

For many of the school leaders we worked with, simply doing a student survey was not new territory. But of course giving a survey is just the beginning. Interpreting survey results with national comparative data, strategically sharing findings with teachers and students, and effectively using the data to track progress toward their SMART goals and drive changes – that is a different story. In the beginning of the initiative with so much data to take in, simply handing over the survey data was not enough. We wanted to provide resources and support to help the data stick, and build capacity in teams over time.

One of the follow-up resources offered was a personalized consultation for each of the 20 school leadership teams, diving into the nuances of their data and beginning the conversation about how the data could be used. This was optional, but nearly every campus leader signed up. This was an important step in interpreting both the baseline data at the start of the initiative, as well as the Year 1 data. With this support, the school teams are growing their capacity and expertise in working with this type of data and making it their own.

Celebrate and Prioritize

Once school leaders reviewed the data, they identified both bright spots and priorities for change. At the end of Year 1, districts and school sites were able to see where YouthTruth results went up from the baseline feedback collected – and where they didn’t – thus identifying bright spots as well as areas in need of continued attention.

Since districts are still early in their journey, we are not necessarily going to see schoolwide changes in student perception and experience. But in many cases, we are able to see change – as reported by the students themselves – in classrooms where teachers are embracing and running with the blended learning pilot. For example:

  • One site found that students in the blended pilot reported more positive relationships with teachers on every single question in that survey theme.
  • Another site found that students in the blended pilot reported more positive experiences with the rigor of their classes and their level of engagement. Teachers had been feeling anecdotally that students were more engaged with their learning – and the data affirmed those sentiments.

Looking Ahead

This is the first year of an initiative piloting new learning model for students – and the adults involved, including us on the YouthTruth team, are still learning a lot. We’re going to continue to partner with sites to monitor student feedback and incorporate it into goal setting and action planning – and we’re excited to see what the coming years of the initiative bring.

Reflecting on the first year: we’re encouraged. We’re encouraged to see the investment in student feedback as an important non-academic measure to help round out the picture of student learning and student experience. We’re encouraged to see bright spots in the early data. And above all, we’re encouraged to see educators working with student perception data and striving to truly listen to students. Because it’s only when we truly listen that students will be at the center.


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