July 17, 2019 | 92° F

Rating surveys help faculty improve teaching skills

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The SIRS asks approximately 10 questions that help professors gauge student opinions in their class. The first eight questions are “formative questions” ­— asking how professors can improve their teaching — and the last two are personal questions.

For the last 25 years, the Student Instructional Rating Survey (SIRS) has helped faculty members shape their teaching approach while giving students a chance to express their opinions and criticisms.  

Interested in maintaining a high level of education, Rutgers created a set of data to observe certain trends in departments and reward good teaching, said Monica Devanas, the director of Faculty Development and Assessment Programs at the Center for Teaching Advancement and Assessment Research (CTAAR).

Devanas said that the SIRS usually contains approximately 10 questions that fall into two categories. 

The first eight questions are described as "formative questions," which ask how professors can improve their teaching quality and relationship with the class. The last two are personal questions — asking students to rate the instructor and the course, she said. 

“Faculty that are coming up for reappointment or tenure collect this information over their entire time at Rutgers,” Devanas said. “It provides as evidence for their effective teaching, their successful teaching and the quality of their teaching.” 

Devanas said that SIRS is taken seriously by faculty, and many professors take their reviews personally. Sometimes professors will obsess over one negative review and completely neglect the 50 positive reviews they got from the same class. The professors are constantly aware of the criticisms that they receive and are constantly working to improve themselves. 

The surveys are interpreted solely by a professors' own department. She said this compares professors to other instructors teaching the same or similar courses. The surveys are completed at the end of every semester and are separated by department with a 10-digit code. 

Once forms are evaluated, instructors are given the data for their own sections as well as the mean scores in their department. Devanas said professors are confronted if a section on the formative part of the survey is noticeably low.

Every department gets the same 10 questions for the SIRS, but there are options for a department to add questions as it feels necessary, she said. 

Devanas said that they have approximately 25 templates available for faculty, which allows them to add questions that pertain to their department. Faculty can add questions to the SIRS on the online and the print versions.  

By observing the survey data, Devanas has been able to notice certain trends in different types of classes. Smaller classes tend to get a higher score because the class is more intimate and the professor can spend more time on individual students, she said. 

The biggest trend she noticed is that classes in the humanities get a much higher score than science classes, Devanas said. 

“The driver of this trend might be the more quantitative nature of a class. The more math heavy a course is, the lower the scores will be,” she said. “Everyone is math phobic, and you can definitely see this trend in students, especially in the United States.” 

Steven Miller, director of Undergraduate Studies in Journalism and Media Studies, said that he finds the SIRS useful as both a teacher and a director in his department. 

“I can't teach well unless my students are open and honest with me and receptive to what I'm saying, but also I need to be receptive to them,” Miller said. “SIRS can give you an insight into whether or not you are accomplishing your goals.”

He said he observes all of the results from all of the people who teach in his department. 

This gives him insight into how others are teaching in the department and ways to help both professors and students, Miller said. The surveys give him and his fellow colleagues a chance to gauge their performances and figure out the best way to approach their students. 

“Our job is, and should be, to convey knowledge to our students, to help make them become better students and better citizens,” he said. “If we're not doing that well and we’re not looking at the methods that we use to do that, why bother?” 

Jacob Turchi

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