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Student Evals and Sexism

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As nearly every faculty member knows, student evaluations are a horrible way to measure teaching. That’s for many reasons. Students are primarily evaluating teachers on what grade they think they will get and the easiness of the class, whether you are a white male or a person of color or a woman, how you dress, etc. Yet student evaluations are often the only way administrations want to measure teaching because a) they don’t want to put the resources into evaluating teaching and b) they want to have happy customers who return the next semester. But these evals can be tremendously damaging, especially to the boatloads of contingent faculty who increasingly teach college courses. On the connection between evaluations and sexism:

There’s mounting evidence suggesting that student evaluations of teaching are unreliable. But are these evaluations, commonly referred to as SET, so bad that they’re actually better at gauging students’ gender bias and grade expectations than they are at measuring teaching effectiveness? A new paper argues that’s the case, and that evaluations are biased against female instructors in particular in so many ways that adjusting them for that bias is impossible.

Moreover, the paper says, gender biases about instructors — which vary by discipline, student gender and other factors — affect how students rate even supposedly objective practices, such as how quickly assignments are graded. And these biases can be large enough to cause more effective instructors to get lower teaching ratings than instructors who prove less effective by other measures, according to the study based on analyses of data sets from one French and one U.S. institution.

“In two very different universities and in a broad range of course topics, SET measure students’ gender biases better than they measure the instructor’s teaching effectiveness,” the paper says. “Overall, SET disadvantage female instructors. There is no evidence that this is the exception rather than the rule.”

Accordingly, the “onus should be on universities that rely on SET for employment decisions to provide convincing affirmative evidence that such reliance does not have disparate impact on women, underrepresented minorities, or other protected groups,” the paper says. Absent such specific evidence, “SET should not be used for personnel decisions.”

Needless to say, university administrations will at best pay lip service to this problem.

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