Exit-Interviews

Aug 15, 2018 by

by Ishwar Mukherjee
[Student at Scarsdale High School, Scarsdale, New York]8-13-2018

A high school student on evaluating a high school education: 

A number of secondary students ultimately learn how to read, think, speak, and write—skills essential for higher education and all professions. But with the backdrop of college admissions, standardized tests, and extra-curriculars, students are usually not much concerned about their classes “preparing” them for college academics or for later life. They are either worried about maintaining their grades, genuinely curious about the material, or fairly indifferent. Listening to these students, who are, after all, the most important variable in schools, might help explain and remedy the widening achievement gap between K-12 and college curriculums. What do the students think? Ask them!

Is there a better method to gauge student opinion on school curriculum than surveys? The problem with surveys arises from a combination of the educator’s fear of information and the student’s fear of consequences. Many high schools, including Scarsdale, administer a mid-year course feedback evaluation to students, promising complete anonymity. Yet comments are scant, given the time limit and reluctance to “soul-search,” and usually offer the fairly obvious: less homework, less readings, more group-work, etc. Why not shift the focus to exit-interviews for recent graduates and alumni?

Students who have just graduated from high school, or who have just “moved-up” from elementary or middle school, no longer have “skin in the game”: they have fulfilled their requirements and received their diplomas. And they are the most likely to speak without self-censorship and to pinpoint specific but genuine (not in-the-moment) information, ideas, and concerns about their time spent in classes and schools. These interviews should center on academics: favorite assignments, least effective class-time usage, interest and engagement, ideas for improvement, etc. They should not be exhaustively long or time-consuming either: a serious fifteen-minute interview can be much more useful than a lighthearted hour-long interview. Colleges are offering interviews during the admissions process to learn about the applicants; high schools should be offering exit-interviews to learn about themselves. The purpose of retrieving student information is not to shame educators or criticize individual teachers but to start a conversation about what works and what doesn’t while making use of the opinions of the ones with the most information about academic work: students. 

Survey results (e.g. homework received an “8” or a “Needs Improvement”) are useful in identifying underlying trends but they can leave educators struggling to pinpoint specific concerns. “Additional Comments” sections can help, but they too can be hastily completed or overlooked. While exit-surveys provide an opportunity for students to opine freely and anonymously, exit-interviews are an avenue for students unconcerned about anonymity to make a more meaningful impact. With a personal, face-to-face interview, students receive an otherwise frequently neglected feeling of agency. A “we want to hear from you!” can make a big difference in improving the quality of student feedback. Board of Education members, teachers, and school administrators can all benefit from such interviews with departing students, before they take all their information and insights away with them.

Exit-interviews are, of course, not brand new. Companies and organizations often conduct such interviews with departing or retiring employees in order to investigate workplace satisfaction and efficiency. Even in high schools, including in Scarsdale, senior student-athletes receive an opportunity to reflect on the season, either with a coach or athletic administrator, in an end-of-season interview. These are quite successful, providing a closer look at the programs’ cultivation of sportsmanship, wellbeing, and engagement. The NFL Foundation’s InsideOut Initiative supports exit-interviews with student athletes wherever it can. Why not apply exit-interviews to high school academics?

Initially, I believe providing elementary, middle, and high school graduates with a class-wide optional exit-survey and piloting exit-interviews with only a handpicked group of students (e.g. 20 – 40 with various academic interests, talents, etc.) would work best. Upon analysis of the results, these feedback programs can be expanded accordingly. For instance, Scarsdale surveys a combination of recent graduates and older alumni on a 5-year basis (in addition to videotaping a handful of exit-interviews and organizing events to connect recent graduates with high school students), but think about what could happen annually. There would be more excitement, more engagement, and more participation; in other words, more information. Scarsdale’s Class of 2019 has about 400 students: aspiring athletes, artists, historians, doctors, lawyers, and everything in between. Those unique, intellectually diverse students have been learning from the Scarsdale school system all their lives. It would be a shame not to learn from them. 

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