As the semester or quarter draws to a close, it will soon be time to submit ourselves to that unique torture reserved for the college professor: student evaluations. Looked at as a means to hire, promote, or fire instructors, student evaluations of teaching (a.k.a. student opinion questionnaires) are widely used—and widely reviled by instructors as unfair and poor gauges of what really goes on in a classroom.
And not without reason. Many studies have injected doubt into the reliability of student opinion surveys as a way to measure a teacher’s worth. However, new research shows that students bring so many biases to the process that evaluations simply cannot be seen as an objective measure of teaching effectiveness at any institution, in any given department, or for any particular course. “Overall, student evaluations of teaching disadvantage female instructors. There is no evidence that this is the exception rather than the rule,” the authors wrote.[i]
“Student Evaluations of Teaching (Mostly) Do Not Measure Teaching Effectiveness” in particular found that student gender biases “prevent” opinion surveys from being fair or effective ways to measure teaching effectiveness. These biases were seen in both male and female students who gave more favorable evaluations to male instructors.
The study followed students and instructors in France and the United States and found that although male instructors consistently received higher scores, their students performed worse on final exams than students of female instructors. Moreover, those rating the male instructors higher were predominantly female.
The research also found that opinion survey results were more correlated to students’ grade expectations than actual learning and that opinion surveys were better at measuring student satisfaction and grade expectations than teaching effectiveness.
In their discussion of the data, the authors wrote a scathing condemnation of student evaluations:
The onus should be on universities that rely on student evaluations of teaching for employment decisions to provide convincing affirmative evidence that such reliance does not have disparate impact on women, underrepresented minorities, or other protected groups … student evaluations of teaching should not be used for personnel decisions.[ii]
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[i] Flaherty, C. (2016, January 11.) Bias against female instructors. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/01/11/new-analysis-offers-more-evidence-against-student-evaluations-teaching
[ii] Boring, A. et. al (2016, January 7.) Student evaluations of teaching (mostly) do not measure teaching effectiveness. Science Open Research. Retrieved from https://www.scienceopen.com/document/vid/818d8ec0-5908-47d8-86b4-5dc38f04b23e