Tucked in the northeastern corner of the Killam Library main floor is an office students seldom enter.
It’s here at the Centre for Learning and Teaching that instructors can polish their portfolios, engage in workshops and participate in discussion groups with their colleagues. And it’s here the results of the Student Ratings of Instruction (SRI)—those bubble sheets students fill out at the end of the semester—are collected, interpreted and regurgitated for faculty.
But some students are skeptical of the SRI’s value to the university.
“I think it’s good that it’s available,” says fourth-year economics student Nicholas Gall. “I haven’t really seen evidence of its effectiveness or the extent to which it’s taken seriously.”
The Centre hopes to change that.
This semester and last, the Centre’s team has been overwhelmed by the adoption of new policy and procedures for the SRI. The policy, approved by the Dalhousie Senate last June, is the first formal document of its kind at Dal. It hopes to install a university-wide standardization of the SRI forms and procedures for their use.
Fay Patel eagerly points to section 5.0, which details the individual responsibilities of students, instructors, deans, academic directors and department heads in ensuring the effective use of SRI and their results. As the Centre’s associate director for curriculum and SRI, she believes “the onus of responsibility and accountability lies on everybody’s shoulders.”
And it begins with the students.
“It’s really important for students to engage in this, to be part of that enhancement of their learning environment,” says the faculty of arts & social sciences dean, Robert Summerby-Murray. “If they don’t engage in it, then this ceases to be a useful instrument because the data are actually meaningless.”
The low response rate for the SRI is a common complaint of Dal instructors, including associate professor of music and gender and women’s studies Jacqueline Warwick. “The more students there are in the class, the lower the response ratio is,” says Warwick, whose classes cater to students from a wide assortment of programs.
Summerby-Murray says part of the problem with the SRI is they only provide a “snapshot” of teaching performance. To get a more comprehensive picture, some instructors conduct informal evaluations midway through the semester.
Karen Gross, a second-year contemporary studies and social anthropology student, has experienced this. “We could give whatever feedback we wanted,” she says. “My professor actually talked about it the next class and said what she had gotten out of it.”
But Warwick says polar opposite comments leave her at a loss on to how to implement changes in her classroom.
For that reason, Patel has been running sessions with students and faculty about how to improve the learning experience. She says the meetings inevitably turn into discussions about the type of feedback students provide on the SRI.
“If you give feedback that is useful, where teaching and learning processes can be improved or enhanced, we will take note of that,” she says. “But if you give feedback that simply has general statements or profanities or emotive language, we’re not sure what to do with that.”
Fiona Martin, an assistant professor of sociology and social anthropology, says she has been grappling with the same comment year after year: “There’s one question on the forms which would be typically the lowest result I would get, and it’s the question that asks ‘Does the professor notice when the student is confused or bored?’” She says she has addressed the issue with her students but has never received a straight answer on how to self-improve.
“The philosophy of our approach is one of collaboration and partnership,” says the Centre’s director, Lynn Taylor. She says a large part of the Centre’s consulting business occurs one-on-one with professors who need help interpreting and applying the results of their SRI.
Martin and Warwick have yet to seek the Centre’s advice. They say junior faculty members are more in need of such help.
The new policy dictates that deans, academic directors and department heads are expected to “counsel and mentor instructors about their participation in the SRI process.”
Currently, this responsibility seems to be undertaken with varying degrees. One chair says he breezes through the SRI once a year. Another says he schedules meetings with his faculty and occasionally visits classrooms to see their teaching in action.
Patel stresses that the SRI system is not meant to monitor instructors. She emphasizes the respect required on the part of all parties so the SRI results benefit both instructors and students.
Students can expect the new SRI forms to be hitting their classrooms by the end of this semester. The Centre’s team hopes they take advantage of it.