Using pupil feedback to improve learning and teaching for able, gifted and talented pupils

Brin Best explains how a genuine dialogue with pupils about their lessons can provide an extremely powerful tool in enhancing the classroom experience and improving outcomes

Author details

Brin is the director of Innovation for Education Ltd, a company providing training and consultancy services to schools and education authorities on a range of contemporary issues. Brin has worked in schools and local authorities as a teacher,...

While the importance of giving gifted and talented pupils a voice is now a universally accepted principle in schools, few teachers or senior managers are systematically seeking and analysing students’ views on lessons as a means of improving educational outcomes.

Using examples from forward-thinking schools, this article explains how a genuine dialogue with pupils about the positive and negative features of their lessons can provide an extremely powerful tool in raising standards.

Pupil feedback varies significantly in terms of its format and the specific learning episodes that are analysed, but it could include the following:

  • Quick feedback on whether pupils have enjoyed a particular learning episode (eg through a show of hands, symbols on pupils' 'show-me' boards or in a classroom 'comments book').
  • Comments on the strengths and weaknesses of a specific lesson, for example by trained pupils observing a lesson and giving feedback to the teacher afterwards (see case study one).
  • A structured questionnaire on teaching over a longer time period such as a half-term (see case study two).

Why is feedback important for gifted and talented pupils?

Feedback from learners of all abilities clearly has value, but it can play a special role in the education of those who are particularly able. In addition to helping to improve the quality of teaching and learning, seeking their views makes use of students’ skills of analysis and evaluation.

More able pupils are used to working with higher-level concepts and often habitually analyse situations to understand what is happening in the classroom and to make connections with other aspects of their learning; their naturally inquisitive and analytical nature makes them particularly significant participants in any attempt to evaluate classroom learning.

Additionally, improving their level of ‘buy-in’ to lessons minimises pupils’ susceptibility to becoming bored, disengaged or disaffected. If lessons are not being pitched at the right level, pupil feedback highlights the problems to be addressed by their teachers and creates a sense of shared responsibility for achieving successful outcomes.

The need for a culture change

Teachers need to make the transition from being the person who creates the learning environment for their pupils, to being partners within a learning community

Perhaps the most significant hurdle for teachers in embracing the full potential of pupil feedback on their lessons is the culture shift that this requires.

There is a requirement for teachers to genuinely open up to the views of their pupils and thereby enter into a much more equal relationship than has traditionally been the case.

Teachers need to make the transition from being the person who creates the learning environment for their pupils, to being partners within a learning community. They have to be seen to value and be willing to learn from pupils’ feedback, and of course, to actually respond in a positive way by introducing the most helpful changes that are suggested.

For some teachers (especially those with rigid views about the need for an authoritative classroom hierarchy with the teacher firmly at the top) this culture change will be extremely difficult to accept. Yet their resistance to change flies in the face of growing evidence that a genuine dialogue with pupils about their lessons has the potential to transform the teacher-pupil relationship and enable significant educational improvements to be introduced.

Vitally, for your more able pupils, these improvements could be just what is needed for them to achieve the A* grades they are targeting.

Evidence from case studies

Although the case studies provided are taken from secondary schools, similar approaches are proving to be very effective in primary settings. There is mounting evidence that even very young children are, with appropriate support, able to identify the positive features of their lessons and some of the more able learners can readily identify improvements. This suggests that the gathering of pupils' feedback on lessons, and a positive response to their views is an important part of school improvement in all phases.

Case study one: Change at the whole-school level

The leadership team at Matthew Moss High School in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, have shown how pupil feedback can take its most radical form by recruiting a team of 'student observers' who, in tandem with an experienced member of staff, observe lessons and then provide structured feedback to the teacher being observed. The work is part of an inspirational programme of activities at the school to genuinely put learning and pupil empowerment at the centre of the curriculum.

High-status work

A key part of the success of the student observers was the high status given to the observers, who were drawn from the school's gifted and talented cohort in each year group. After the project was launched, interested pupils were asked to apply to become student observers, stating why they thought the work was important and what they thought they could specifically offer. The selected group then spent two days off timetable with an expert in pupil consultation, and together with key members of staff devised the criteria that would be considered when observing lessons at the school. These were then recorded in professionally-designed lesson observation forms, to be used by pupils during classroom observations. Pupils were also trained in the mechanics of lesson observation using videos of lessons, in particular what to look for in a lesson that is ‘outstanding’. The members of staff working with the pupils were astounded by how quickly the young people understood the key concepts and could pick out significant features.

Overcoming resistance

Despite the cutting-edge reputation of the school and its position as one of the most successful in Greater Manchester, several members of staff were sceptical at the prospect of pupils observing their lessons and making judgements about the quality of teaching and learning. Yet the feedback from staff has been overwhelmingly positive from the start, with teachers drawing attention to the surprising insight and perceptive comments of the pupils, and the helpful suggestions for how their lessons could be improved. A particularly striking feature of the teacher feedback drew attention to the fact that, although each lesson was observed by an experienced member of staff and a student observer simultaneously, the comments that have resulted in the most significant changes to lessons often came from the pupil. The work of Matthew Moss High School suggests that many schools may have hitherto overlooked the insight that gifted and talented learners have into the learning experience in which they are immersed every day.

Case study two: Change at the classroom level

My interest in how pupils' views on their lessons can improve learning opportunities dates back to my years as a subject leader and classroom teacher at Settle High School & Community College in North Yorkshire. Over the course of a three-year action research project, I implemented a radical series of measures to improve my lessons by seeking detailed pupil feedback on my lessons.

Brief comments to detailed questionnaires

The work began by asking the members of two pilot groups of more able pupils (one in Year 9, the other in Year 12) to record, with reasons, what they enjoyed and did not enjoy about three lessons. I admit to feeling uneasy about the comments that would be returned by the pupils, fearing that they might be unduly critical of my lessons or that they would use the opportunity to write silly (or even abusive) remarks. However, these fears were quickly allayed when I read the first set of comments, as they were uniformly sensible, perceptive and most of all helpful to me as the teacher. It was also clear, during discussion with the pupils, that these young people had relished the opportunity to give their feedback on some lessons, as it gave them a tangible sense of empowerment.

During the second phase of the project (which lasted a whole academic year) I expanded the work by asking all my groups of more able pupils to complete a questionnaire at the end of every half-term, to review my teaching over that period. The questions they were asked were as follows:

  • What were the most important things you learnt over the last half-term?
  • What did you enjoy about your lessons over the last half-term?
  • What did you not enjoy about your lessons over the last half-term?
  • Give me a score out of 10 that indicates how much you learnt in your lessons during the last half-term (10 is best; 0 is worst).
  • Give me a score out of 10 that indicates how much you enjoyed your lessons during the last half-term (10 is best; 0 is worst).
  • How do you think I can make your lessons better during the coming half-term? Please be as specific as you can.

Results and benefits

There is no doubt that of all the CPD activities I carried out during my teaching career, this action research project had the most profound impact. As well as generating numerous practical suggestions from pupils that I was able to implement straight away to improve my lessons, the work resulted in a striking change in the relationship with my pupils. There was a noticeable transition to a more partnership-based model to teaching and learning, where constructive feedback was seen as vital to learning, for the teacher as well as the pupil. For the first time it felt that I was part of a learning community as a teacher, a community that pupils played a role in shaping. Perhaps the most telling question asked by a participating pupil (a bright but disaffected boy, who often struggled to engage with classroom activities) was why other teachers in the school were not also asking pupils for their views on lessons.

References and further reading

  • Best, B (2008) We Did it Here! Inspirational Stories of School Improvement and Classroom Change. Crown House Publishing
  • Ruddock, J and McIntyre, D (2007) Improving Learning Through Consulting Pupils. Routledge
Last Updated: 
07 Oct 2016