Listening to Students through Surveys

by Guest Blogger Ilana Pergam
Director of Academic Program, The Chapin School

Like most people in my position, “that was not my original plan” has become part of my standard lexicon.

When the team at Chapin began to think about and plan for distance learning, student surveys were not part of our initial thinking. We expected to stay in school until the Friday before our March break and planned to use that two-week period as time to prepare for the online classes that would begin after the break. The Board, however, made the decision to close the building on that Wednesday when it was reported that someone in the community had possibly been in contact with a person diagnosed with COVID-19. Our teachers and administrators immediately “fast-tracked” our distance-learning plan, implementing the program on that Friday before break and using it as a “soft-launch” of sorts for our remote learning.

That was two weeks earlier than we had planned.

One of the most valuable drivers of our planning process was the voice of our students. It was important to us to include them as we do our best work when we look at anything we do through the lens of a student’s experience. Now more than ever, we knew that they would not only help us to shape this new style of learning, but that it would underscore for them that we do listen to them and value them as our partners.

On that Friday evening of our soft-launch, we sent a survey to students in grades 8-12, our high school, which I must say was not the most well-planned document. I created it that afternoon based on what we thought we needed to know after a one-day test.

But the results and the process were incredibly valuable in framing how we, as a school, should and would move forward.

Our initial questions to students were designed to get their feedback on the tools and experiences, their likes and frustrations on their first day. We wanted to use data to help teachers make necessary adjustments and so we could establish clear expectations around distance learning for everyone in our community.

I wanted, for example, to find out what students wished to get from our existing LMS system, which we call Academic Manager. We recognized an area of growth a while ago, when we realized that teachers in all divisions used their Academic Manager pages differently, and some more robustly than others. To ensure that our remote learning plan was as successful as it could be, we knew that everyone’s pages had to be current and complete. Our Class 8-12 students affirmed the importance of this, prioritizing it in their survey responses. This endorsement made it easier for our Head of Upper School to make this a clear expectation of the Upper School teachers.

The survey also offered valuable insight into our proposed new schedule. Students explained that they wanted and needed more breaks throughout the day since their classes now took place in one setting. They also asked for more time for lunch.

We were so happy to hear from the students and to know their first day had been tremendously positive and they were looking forward to picking back up after the break. They made sure, as well, to note how amazing their teachers were for pulling this together. Being able to share that reaction and encouragement with teachers was a wonderful benefit of the survey exercise that had buoying effect.

Over break, the findings of the survey were presented in a Zoom meeting to Upper School department heads and deans, and as a slide deck to teachers, with both underscoring the need to continually listen to students as our program evolved. The feedback was also incorporated into a robust distance-learning guide distributed to our community—students, parents and faculty—just prior to the students’ return from break.

Recognizing the great value these surveys had in shaping our remote-learning curricula, we plan to poll the students at least every other week, and also to regularly solicit feedback from parents and faculty.

Gone, however, are the last-minute surveys created at my dining room table as we have enlisted our Director of the Annenberg Center of Learning and Research to help develop our survey tools. Our faculty are also providing us with questions they would like posed to students and parents to help inform their particular work.

I believe that one of the reasons our surveys in general, and this in particular, are well-received and helpful is they are consistent with our known school values—our strong belief in clear, transparent communication, and the sense of community that reminds us that we are all in this together. The surveys are a reflection of who we are and what should be doing. I used, for example, the Chapin motto “Fortiter et Recte” (Bravely and Rightly) as the framing device of the Distance-Learning Guide. We refer to our motto often. It binds us together, is what inspires us, and keeps us focused on a single, shared goal. It allows us to do great work, which seems especially relevant when we are all trying something new, together.