SIRs can make a difference

Writing in pen, filling in all the bubbles of a single column, not filling in the bubbles at all, putting checks or x’s in the bubbles instead of filling them in—these are all things students do on the Student Instructional Reports (SIRs) that make them unusable.

North East Admissions Counselor Katlin Hess, who was the graduate assistant in the Office of Academic Affairs for the 2010-11 school year, has seen it all. Hess was the person who received the SIRs and decided which ones could be sent for processing.

“One time I got one that said ‘This teacher was awesome,’ and also one that just had a full-page picture of Sponge Bob’s pineapple with a note that said, ‘Sorry this drawing is so bad.’ While these usually made me laugh out loud, I couldn’t really count them for anything,” she said.

This leads one to question the significance of the SIRs and whether students are taking them seriously.

SIRs have serious uses

“SIRs are a way for department chairs, professors and administrators to evaluate student reactions to certain classes or teaching methods so that changes can be made for next term or certain classes can be re-evaluated,” Hess said.

On the SIRs, the bubbles from each category are averaged into a score ranging from one to five, and professors at Mercyhurst are expected to score an average of four or above.

Vice President for Academic Affairs Phil Belfiore, Ph.D., explained the SIRs and their importance.

“The SIRs are important because it gives faculty some indication of how students perceive their class. They’re important for the administration because it allows us to see how well our faculty are actually teaching,” he said. “The SIRs are certainly one leg of the stool on how we evaluate teachers for promotion and merit. There are multiple legs to the teaching stool.”

The other legs are department chair, school dean and administration observations and student and faculty interviews, Belfiore said.

“Going up for promotion doesn’t mean they are doing good or bad; it’s just part of the process,” he added.
President of Faculty Senate Michael Federici, Ph.D., said there are two main purposes for the SIRs and that each SIR is different, depending on the level of experience of the faculty member.

“The first purpose is to identify weaknesses in the teaching that you can help with, and the second purpose is for the rank and tenure process,” said Federici. “If you have bad SIRs, it’s unthinkable–highly unlikely–that you would receive tenure. SIRs can be a real obstacle if they’re not good.”

‘Tricks of the trade’

SIRs are so important for faculty that Federici has even heard rumors of professors making unethical decisions in order to ensure high scores.

“There are cases in the past of faculty skirting the rules,” he said. “There have been faculty who have insisted on staying in the room, for example, which could make students uncomfortable. There have also been faculty who have taken the SIR itself to OAA, which makes it possible that it could be tampered with. Once it’s been filled out, only students should handle it.”

There are also “tricks of the trade,” such as when to pass out the SIRs, according to Federici.

“The closer you get to the end of the term, the lower the scores get,” he said.

Federici said he “never pays attention to that” and always gives his during the last class of the term. He has never had a problem with any of his SIRs.

The students’ voice

Because of the importance of SIRs for the rank and tenure process, Belfiore thinks students should take the SIRs seriously.

“Students have an important voice in it. If faculty aren’t teaching at the level they should be, students have a chance to reflect that with SIRs,” he said. “Students have a large voice in how we determine the quality of teaching. We rely on the students for feedback. They should take it seriously. It is meaningful.”

Hess elaborated on their importance.

“As a student who has filled out SIRs for the last five years, I was actually surprised at how seriously the administration takes this whole process. I assumed that these results were just kept in a file. I didn’t realize that so many people look at the results and how much effect they have on faculty members and the classes they teach,” she said.

What students should know

Federici also thinks that students should take the SIRs seriously. He said there are two things students should know when filling out the SIRs.

“Students have an obligation to help a faculty member to become better and to identify their weaknesses. Also, people’s jobs depend on the outcomes of the SIRs for the rank and tenure process. Students should be honest and SIRs should be taken very seriously,” he said.

One reason students might not take the SIRs seriously, according to Belfiore, is that they “may not know what the outcome of the SIRs is or the seriousness of it.”

“A lot of things are going on when students are filling out the SIRs,” said Federici. “For example, if students like them personally, they might give them higher scores.”

He said that preferences on how a class is taught could also affect scores.

“The hope is that it will balance out,” Federici said.

Department Chair of World Languages and Cultures Alice Edwards, Ph.D., said, “The problem is that students don’t see the immediate results of the SIRs. The wheels of academia turn slowly.

“If any changes are going to be made, it will take a period of time to collect the data. The SIRs could have an enormous impact, but not until the data is collected. You have to trust in the system.”

The long wait for effects

This could be difficult for some students to swallow.

“We’ve all done them for four years, but we haven’t seen any changes,” senior Garrett Kimple said.

This leads to discouragement among students and could be a leading reason that the SIRs are not always taken seriously.

“As a freshman, I took the SIRs more seriously, but students around me flew through them and that affected how I fill it out now,” senior Brian Purcell said.

This doesn’t take away from their importance, though. Faculty also think the SIRs are an important aspect of their teaching.

Professor of philosophy Bud Brown, Ph.D., recently gave a talk at the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) in which he “tried to illustrate how I utilize the SIRs to change my teaching,” he said.

“Valuable information can be gained from SIRs for teaching for professors,” said Brown. “Low scores serve to remind me that I need to be constantly improving my teaching.”

On students not taking the SIRs seriously, Brown said, “The temptation is to think, ‘Does it really matter? I’m only one person,’ but they are serious and should be taken extremely seriously by everybody. They are extremely important.”

It seems that most students would agree.

Senior Andrea Sauers said, “I take the SIRs seriously because I think that good teachers should get the credit that they deserve and receive feedback, and bad teachers should get that feedback, too, because of all the money we pay. Taking the SIRs takes 10 minutes at most—there’s no reason that students can’t answer them seriously.”

Junior Chelsea Schermerhorn thinks that most students take the SIRs seriously because “there’s been an understanding of what the point is. But because they are structured, it can be difficult to give constructive feedback. Sometimes professors give supplemental forms and questions within the department, and the professors get better feedback that way.”

Senior Angelina Smith agreed. “There should be a way to explain yourself,” she said.

Another factor leading to the seriousness of SIRs is the professor and the way he or she taught the class.

“I think it depends if the teacher takes the class seriously, as to whether students take it seriously. If the teacher takes it more seriously, than I do, too,” senior Ryan Williard said.

Smith added, “I think students are more serious about it if you have an inadequate teacher and actually have something to say because it feels more important.”

Student opinions count

Something that is easily agreed upon is the importance of student opinion.

“I think that student opinion is exceptionally valuable because they are sitting there in class every day. Peer evaluation is also important, but that is only for one class,” Edwards said.

Federici said, “We wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t listen to student input. Low SIRs are usually the first indicator that something is wrong.”

Students should let their opinions be heard, even if it is not through a SIR but through a one-on-one discussion with a department chair or school dean, because it’s the students who are affected the most by inadequate teaching.