The Glaring Flaw In Student Evaluations

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Student evaluations in higher education are controversial for a number of reasons. Some professors argue that students who struggled in the course simply take it out on the professor, even if it isn’t the instructor’s fault, which pressures professors to treat students differently when they’re close to evaluation time. Some politicians counter that this is one of few avenues for students to give feedback on an education they’re paying thousands of dollars to receive, saying students are “customers.”

But another element in the debate over student evaluations is the potential affect of gender bias on female professors asking for feedback from their classrooms.

Gender bias influences how students rate professors on what are supposed to be objective measures, according to a new study published in ScienceOpen Research. The authors — who ultimately conclude that student evaluations of teaching, or SETs, are not reliable ways to measure the effectiveness of a professor — write that there isn’t any evidence to show these incidents of gender bias are the exception to the rule.

One interesting feature of the study was that female students rated male instructors more highly than male students — rating the male instructor higher on overall satisfaction and rating female professors lower on helpfulness, responsiveness, consistency, promptness, and knowledge. Male students tended to rate male professors higher on fairness. The study considered whether the male instructors were actually more effective, but didn’t find any evidence that was the case.

This paper uses data from both French universities and a blind, controlled experiment at a U.S. university. But if you compare the French and U.S. data, you find that in both cases, male instructors received an advantage due to gender bias while women were disadvantaged, according to Inside Higher Education.

Of course, attitudes of gender bias present themselves in all kinds of assessments of female teachers, including on the popular wesbite Last year, Benjamin Schmidt, an assistant professor at Northeastern University, used data from 14 million student reviews to build a tool for users to look at how often certain words are used to describe female professors versus male professors. Male professors were more likely to receive reviews that included the words “brilliant and “intelligent” and were more frequently called a “genius” compared to female professors, who received descriptors such as “mean,” “unfair,” and “annoying.”

These results shouldn’t be surprising, however, given what we know about how women are perceived in other professions. Kieran Snyder, a linguist and tech entrepreneur, looked at 248 performance reviews from 180 people working in tech (105 men and 75 women) and found that women received far more negative feedback as opposed to only constructive feedback. The critical feedback women receive often tells them to change their tone to be less “abrasive” or to pipe down and “step back to let others shine.” The word “abrasive” was used 17 times and was applied to 13 different women’s reviews. Like the study analyzing student evaluations, the gender of the managers did not appear to have an effect on the amount of negative feedback women received or the way that criticism was stated.