The semester is just not finished until you have completed course/teaching evaluations. Most students probably see them as a pesky task, but we can learn a lot about ourselves as faculty and our students from these evaluations. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how gender bias influences the feedback on these evaluations.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year… Chrismakwanzika? No. It’s the end of the semester! During these last couple of weeks of the semester, you have written papers, passed your exams, and completed course/teacher evaluations. Let’s talk about these evaluations.
When your professor brings out the evaluation forms, you probably think a a few things:
- The semester really is almost over!
- If my classmate, who is handing out the evaluation forms, moves a bit more quickly, I can get out of class early today!
- I can give my professor fair and constructive feedback on this course and their teaching abilities.
What? Fair and constructive feedback isn’t what you had in mind? That wasn’t on the top of my mind either when I was in your shoes.
Now that I am the one being evaluated, I think about course evals a bit more than I did as an undergraduate. Many (rightly) critique these evaluations because students might not be the best judges of quality teaching given that at times what is best for learning might not be something students particularly enjoy. Learning a subject involves being challenged, dealing with confusion, and suffering through failure along the way to developing mastery.
We also have to acknowledge that sometimes what students want is different than what teachers want. As a teacher I want my students to learn. However, sometimes students just want to earn a decent grade and not be asked to do a lot of work for it.
Critics argue that faculty are making courses easier in order to improve their teaching evaluations. This is not in the best interest of students, but being a “hard teacher” can be detrimental to one’s career. Faculty can and do get denied tenure based on student feedback.
Furthermore, research suggests that argue that some faculty are graded more harshly based on characteristics that have nothing to do with teaching ability: age, race, nationality, social class, gender, and so on (see for instance, Messner 2000; Perry et al. 2009; Schueths et al. 2013). I am going to focus on gender in this post because newly published research confirms what many have long suspected: faculty who are men receive more favorable evaluations compared to faculty who are women.
Judging Male & Female Teachers Differently
In the experiment, two instructors (one male and one female) were each given two online courses to teach. The instructors identified as a man in one course and a woman in the other course. That is, the instructor remained constant, but indicated a different gender in each course taught. The researchers found:
“Students rated the male identity significantly higher than the female identity, regardless of the instructor’s actual gender, demonstrating gender bias” (MacNell, Driscoll, and Hunt 2014).
Sometimes student feedback is pointed directly at gender bias. For instance, a few years ago, I received this gem in my student evaluations:
“Doesn’t dress professionally.”
I don’t remember any of the other feedback from students from that semester. I was flabbergasted! I could only recall wearing jeans and a sweatshirt to class once that semester. The reason for jeans and a sweatshirt? Faculty had been asked by administration to wear shirts from our alma mater to promote transferring among our students (this was at a community college). Moreover, I never dressed in a way that I hadn’t already observed on another faculty member. But I’ve already devoted too much of this post and my own mental energy to this one student comment. I bring it up as an illustrative example of gender bias in student feedback. Women faculty report that they are more often evaluated on their looks rather than teaching ability compared to men faculty and now research supports this perception.
This Chrismakwanzika all I want is fair and constructive feedback that focuses on my actual teaching and not my age, race, nationality, gender, social class or some other factor that has nothing to do with whether or not a student learned in my course.
Read more about the study outside of a paywall:
- List five characteristics of men. List five characteristics of women. List five characteristics of a good college teacher. Do any of your characteristics of men or women show up on your list of a good college teacher? Which characteristics? What does this tell you about your own stereotypes of men, women, and college teachers?
- Faculty of color also experience lower teaching evaluations compared to white faculty. How does race influence students’ perceptions of teaching ability? Now read about Professor Shannon Gibney’s teaching experience. How does your answer fit with Professor Gibney’s experience?
- Is gender bias evident in other types of employee evaluations? Why or why not? Read this report about employee evaluations to learn more.
- Pop quiz: Select one of the major sociological perspectives you have learned this semester. How would this perspective explain gender bias in course/teaching evaluations?
- MacNell, Lillian, Adam Driscoll, and Andrea N. Hunt. 2014. “What’s in a Name: Exposing Gender Bias in Student Ratings of Teaching.” Innovative higher Education (Read Online)
- Messner, Michael A. 2000. “White Guy Habitus in the Classroom.” Men and Masculinities 2(4):457-469.
- Perry, Gary, Helen Moore, Crystal Edwards, Katherine Acosta and Connie Frey. 2009. “Maintaining Credibility and Authority as an Instructor of Color in Diversity-Education Classrooms: A Qualitative Inquiry.” The Journal of Higher Education 80(1): 80–105.
- Schueths, April M., Tanya Gladney, Devan A. Crawford, Katherine L. Bass, and Helen A. Moore. 2013. “Passionate Pedagogy and Emotional Labor: Students’ Responses to Learning Diversity from Diverse Instructors.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 26(10): 1259–1276