Online evaluations improve instructor feedback
As the fall semester nears its end, undergraduate and graduate students on all three University campuses have the opportunity to anonymously comment on the quality of the class and their instructor’s teaching skills.
The Center for Teaching Advancement and Assessment Research distributes the Student Instructional Rating Surveys at the end of each academic semester for about 10,000 courses, said Monica Devanas, director of faculty development and assessment programs at CTAAR.
The surveys — offered online and on paper — prompt students to rate their professors on a scale of one to five on certain factors, such as difficulty or helpfulness, Devanas said. The survey also includes open-ended questions based on the department.
“This is a really important part of [the students’] opportunity to have a say in their own education,” she said. “To be open and honest and to make every effort to provide feedback would be a really good gain for us to have more students participate in it.”
CTAAR, which first administered the surveys in 1993, distributes the surveys to each class a student is enrolled in, Devanas said. Completed surveys are then given to the respective department and professor for review.
The CTAAR has worked over the past three years to transition the originally paper-based process into an online system to expedite the review process, cutting down the six- to eight- week turnaround, she said.
“What the faculty likes about online [SIRS] is that usually students have more time to think about the answers,” Devanas said. “ If you’re given only three minutes in class to do it, people usually mark all fives or all threes — they hardly have any comments.”
Although the online comments are more thought out, the paper surveys have a higher return rate with 70 percent response compared to 55 to 65 percent for online surveys, Devanas said.
“Those students [who respond] are very thoughtful in their comments,” said Ann Coiro, director of undergraduate studies in the Department of English. “We really read those comments, and they’ve really helped us.”
Through an electronic survey, CTAAR is also working to implement more questions geared toward specific departments and courses, Devanas said.
“With the online structure, we can customize even greater,” she said. “We’d like to get to the point where faculty members can add their own questions and departments can add their own questions.”
Academic departments use the surveys extensively in the short-term planning process and long-term, Devanas said. A department may review SIRS to improve curriculum or to consult when a faculty member is up for tenure.
Patrick Ree, a First-Year Interest Group Seminar peer instructor for “Exploring Anthropology,” taught the 10-week course this semester, and his students will evaluate him through SIRS.
“They’re not released yet, but I’m really anticipating getting feedback from my students,” said Ree, a School of Arts and Sciences senior. “Having that opportunity definitely makes me really want to let my professors know that I actually have feedback to give them.”
Not all students provide feedback at the end of the semester. Mona Saleh, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, is skeptical of professors taking the time to read the surveys.
“I always ask the teacher, [teaching assistant] or professor if they actually do look at them,” she said. “A lot of times classes, like ‘Organic Chemistry,’ have about 900 kids in class — [instructors] are not going to look or care. You’re just going to end up wasting your time doing the survey.”
Douglas Blair, an economics professor who has about 360 students in his largest class, said he carefully reads through all the SIRS surveys.
“I also have a weekly feedback form in both of my big classes linked to Sakai, which I read, too,” Blair said. “These weekly surveys tip me off about what isn’t working in particular topics. I can change how I’m presenting them or return to topics people are having difficulty with.”
Ree and Saleh said they did not know that the SIRS evaluations are available online, so they turn to other sources for instructor evaluations.
“I do use RateMyProfessors.com, but not strictly,” Ree said. “It has its own biases, but it definitely influences which classes I choose and which I don’t.”
Devanas said she encourages more students to use the SIRS database because it provides a comprehensive and reliable source of feedback from students who were officially in the class.
The CTAAR also checks that students are commenting about the correct instructor, she said.
“It’s a more serious structure than RateMyProfessors.com in a sense that professors want to hear from students in their own class,” Devanas said. “You have no way [of knowing] those comments are made by somebody in the class.”
During the course evaluation process, departments take into account the different factors affecting an instructor’s review, Coiro said. Some professors receive positive comments in one course but negative comments in others because of the varying workloads.
“I think we’ve come to see that when you have many people teaching [a course] over many years, we can see a narrative,” she said. “We evaluate our students, but we also evaluate ourselves.”