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Are Student Course Evaluations Biased?

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Are Student Course Evaluations Biased?


Bringing cookies to class may guarantee tenure.

Course evaluations: we rant, we rave, we cave into our internal biases… or do we? At the end of each semester, Southwestern students are sent an anonymous online evaluation to fill out for each of their courses. The evaluation asks students how challenged they were by the course as well as a series of other questions about the class itself. Students are also asked to rate their professor on a variety of personal attributes such as enthusiasm, professionalism, and how qualified they seem to teach the course. Jose Ortz said that course evaluations are a good way to gauge a professor’s “overall vibe.” After assessing a professor’s vibe, students can then explain whether or not they vibe with the class. However, research shows that students rate women as being less professional and qualified to teach the course. This indicates that students are biased against women when filling out course evaluations. A Southwestern faculty committee chaired by Dr. Fay Guarraci is currently trying to fix this problem. The committee is also considering inquiring about discrimination directed toward students in the new course evaluations.

Southwestern uses students’ feedback to evaluate professors in three areas: Teaching Effectiveness, Professional Growth, and lastly: Contributions to the University. Dr. Alison Marr notes that course evaluations are “one of the main measures of teaching effectiveness as part of [professor] promotion and tenure decisions.” Inside Higher Ed, a news outlet geared towards college professors, analyzed a meta study of over 100 articles. Researchers found that male professors are perceived as being more qualified, educated, and organized than female professors. For example, when students were reviewing an online course of identical design, one taught by a female and the other taught by a male, they consistently rated the male instructor higher than the female instructor. However, the results may differ depending on whether the course is a humanities or science course. Women who teach STEM courses are under harsher scrutiny than women who teach humanity courses. Dr. Alison Marr believes that her gender has affected the way students evaluate her math courses.

Dr. Marr says: “We all have implicit biases and perceptions about what a STEM faculty member should look like.” She points out that this is in part based “on the media’s portrayal of scientists.” From kindergarten onward, students are taught by the media that people in STEM should be men. Dr. Marr has found that when students come to college and are faced with a female professor they tend to believe that she should be nurturing and caring. If a female professor deviates from how a student believes she should be, it “can definitely lead to biased comments” on course evaluations.

Dr. Rebecca Evans, who is an English professor, has also noticed gender bias in the free response sections of her evaluations. She has found that these biases “can be subtle, and can even read at first glance as positive”. Dr. Evans has found that students “often emphasize non-substantive and highly feminized traits (such as perceived warmth, enthusiasm, or supportiveness) rather than speaking to the disciplinary knowledge, academic expertise, or instructional effectiveness”. These substantive compliments are more frequently directed toward male professors. Students may not realize that bidding their female professors compliments on personal attributes, as opposed to compliments that speak to their teaching capabilities, places them at a disadvantage when the university is accessing their skill as a professor.

Overall, female professors were rated lower than their male counterparts. However, there is reason to believe that in some cases discrimination may be conditional. Researchers found some evidence of “gender affinity” at play when it comes to professor evaluations. It is thought that some students may prefer to take classes that are taught by someone who is the same gender as them. However, there isn’t enough research to suggest that a racial affinity bias. People of color are underrepresented in the studies due to them being underrepresented in higher education faculty. 

Dr. Fay Guarraci is the chair of a faculty committee that is creating a new course evaluation form for Southwestern students to fill out. Dr. Guarraci says that the free response sections of our current course evaluations “often elicit comments about irrelevant personal characteristics of the instructor, such as the instructor’s appearance, gender, race, ethnicity, identity, sexual orientation, etc.” The faculty committee aims to create a form that can be used to more accurately access the course. They propose that this can be done by making the questionnaire more specific and less open-ended. For example, the new form may explicitly inquire about grading criteria, assignment feedback, and due dates. By altering the questionnaire in this way, the committee could possibly reduce sexism on both ends— whether that be gender affinity or misogyny. More specific questions could prevent other types of biases as well, a European study found that students rate their professors more favorably if they bring cookies to the class. This led to the conclusion that “higher student satisfaction does not necessarily correlate with a higher quality of education.” The Southwestern faculty committee hopes that a course evaluation that explicitly asks students about the educational components of their courses will generate useful feedback for professors. Dr. Guaracci hopes the new course evaluations will not inspire commentary “on personal characteristics of the instructor.”

Aleena Khan, who is a student on the Diversity Inclusion Belonging Equity board, understands how course evaluations could be biased toward professors. But she also believes that there are some personal characteristics about professors that need to be commented upon. Although being a racist is a personality trait, it is something that influences how a course is taught and how students are graded. Dani Echevarria believes that it is important for students to ask themselves: “Are we evaluating the course? Or are we evaluating the professor? Because both [of these things] should be evaluated.” Aleena notes that: “There’s a difference between attacking [an instructor’s] teaching style and attacking their person… Course evaluations may be the only place that a student of color feels comfortable bringing up a faculty member’s racial bias.” Aleena and Dani are worried that if there were no free response sections in a course evaluation there may not be a safe way for students to call out racist professors. When I brought up these concerns to Dr. Guarraci, she assured me that every question will still contain a free response option. Dr. Guarraci also said that she would propose there be space for students to comment upon a professor’s potential biases.

Works Cited

ESA (European Society of Anaesthesiology). (2018, June 4). Teachers who give cookie rewards score better in evaluations. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 12, 2023 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/06/180604182502.htm 

Flaherty, Colleen. What’s Really Going on with Respect to Bias and Teaching Evals?, 2021, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/02/17/whats-really-going-respect-bias-and-teaching-evals

Kreitzer, Rebecca J., and Jennie Sweet-Cushman. “Evaluating Student Evaluations of Teaching: A Review of Measurement and Equity Bias in Sets and Recommendations for Ethical Reform.” Journal of Academic Ethics, vol. 20, no. 1, 2021, pp. 73–84., https://doi.org/10.1007/s10805-021-09400-w. 

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