Student Evaluations and Gender

Still using student evaluations in hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions?

You might want to take a look at this new study, which adds to the evidence that student evaluations are biased in favour of men.

Students gave professors they thought were male much higher evaluations across the board than they did professors they thought were female, regardless of what gender the professors actually were. When they told students they were men, both the male and female professors got a bump in ratings. When they told the students they were women, they took a hit in ratings …

Classwork was graded and returned to students at the same time by both instructors. But the instructor students thought was male was given a 4.35 rating out of 5. The instructor students thought was female got a 3.55 rating.

9 thoughts on “Student Evaluations and Gender

  1. WHY NOT COMMENTS??!!? This is something that affects our lives in the most serious way. Course evaluations are a magnet for implicit bias, against women, minorities, anyone who isn’t perceived as suitably professorial. Why aren’t we fighting this?

  2. Harriet– I don’t know about anyone else, but the reason I didn’t comment is that I’m so utterly exhausted, and feel futile when it comes to this particular topic. I am female, and teach in a way that we (those of us who pay honest attention) know drives down my student evaluations– first, because I am teaching while female, second, because I belong to other categories covered by the ‘underrepresented minorities’ survey in ways of which the students are aware, and third, because the content of my teaching exacerbates the latter two pernicious effects– e.g. I teach hard classes, I expect a lot of my students, I’m receptive but I will not engage with my students as though I am their ‘mommy’ (and the gendering of that term is here relevant). I am tired of trying to demonstrate to the willfully blind and deaf that these things matter. I have, for instance one female colleague, who consistently gets good-to-very-good evaluations. Her average grade for classes in which she does the grading is an A- (that information is publicly available where I teach). When I pointed this difference out to colleagues, they effectively shrugged. When I share such studies as this, they respond with, ‘yeah, but …the administration will never listen’ or ‘yeah, but [insert even-stronger-than-Cartesian standard for ‘knowing that these things make a difference in student evaluations’ here]” and on and on. If I were a woman of less integrity, i’d just start handing out the candy of the A- average myself. If I were less exhausted, I’d find ways to fight this too. But I refuse to become the person who does the first thing, and I am exhausted. So I download the studies every time I see them, keep them in a file to preserve my own sanity, and try to focus on things about which I feel less exhausted and more in a position to influence.

  3. I know that this isn’t exactly on topic, but I’m responding to anonymousfemalefaculty about what she describes as “the candy of the A- average”. My average is high too, around a B+. There are a number of reasons why it’s so high, but one of those reasons is that most of my students (i) do all of their work, (ii) are not philosophy majors, but (iii) become much better at reasoning throughout the course. If I graded in a way that looks good on paper, their GPAs would go down, and some random humanities class would then make it harder for them to become, say, nurse practitioners or social workers. I have students who don’t immediately grasp, say, the instrumental/ intrinsic distinction, who are very hard workers and just really nice people. If they have As in their majors, they’d make great nurse practitioners, social workers, etc… I don’t want to hold them back. For this reason, I wish we could grade non-majors on an A/Pass/Fail basis. The really good students would get the 4.0 added to their averages, and pretty much everyone else would get the credit, without it affecting their GPAs.

    Back to the lecture at hand, am I thinking like a “mommy”? Maybe. But I don’t think so. I think I’m thinking like a teacher.

  4. At my place, there have been increasing restrictions on the pass/fail option promoted, for reasons I can’t fathom, by faculty. Students can’t take courses for their majors, or prerequisites for major courses pass/fail (ok–not unreasonable)–or general education (‘Core Curriculum’) courses. I fought this last restriction with everything I had–but it was a done deal. Administration wanted it.

    The arguments were that if students could take these ‘Core Curriculum’ courses pass/fail they wouldn’t take them seriously. OK–so what? Why should I care? I just don’t want the hassle of endless argument with grade-grubbing students or having to justify my grades. There was also more of gratuitious get-toughism–the endless campaigns against grade-inflation.

    For reappointment, promotion and tenure, faculty have to submit evaluations, all tabulated with numerical scores AND their range of grades, in detail, for all classes. The idea is to get the best possibly evaluations with the lowest possible grades–to suck up to students while screwing them over. I suppose the ideal strategy is to give students high grades and then, after the evaluations are in, screw them over on final exams and term papers.

  5. I’d be curious as to how wide-spread is the t&p policy to which Harriet refers. At my place of employ, student evaluations are submitted for t&p without any information about grades, and the administration has made it very clear that they don’t care about grades (even if they are reported) . At all. All A’s? All C’s? No. (perhaps they’d care if everyone flunked…) Just higher scores on the student evaluations. The narrow prudential incentive to hand out the As without regard to merit is quite high.

  6. Hey Baber [if I may, I’m a bit of a fan of yours], perhaps the not-taking-pass/fail-courses-seriously worry is grounded in the assumption that the criteria for passing a pass/fail course is the same as the criteria for getting a D-. That’s a bad assumption. I think if the criteria is sufficiently high, then students will be forced to take the courses seriously. And while the students who don’t pass might fight you, they’re less likely to do so than non-majors with high GPAs who earn, say, a B in your class. And if grade-inflation is at least in part the result of professors just not wanting to deal with grade-grubbing shenanigans, then campaigns against grade-inflation have a strong reason to embrace the pass/fail option.

    So, I urge you to fight again Baber! If I ever become a real professor [with tenure and everything], I’ll fight for it too.

    As for the “ideal strategy” you describe in your last paragraph in Comment #4, sure, I’ve heard that. And yes, I’ve started to implement it ever so slightly. But it’s SO mean, not to mention, borderline dishonest. And it doesn’t sit well for someone like me, who thinks that our duty regarding non-majors is simply to improve their critical thinking skills so that they can go on to be better nurses, or dentists, or whatever.

    But back again to anonymousfemalefaculty’s Comment #2 as well as the lecture at hand, while out present-buying, it occurred to me that as an inflated-grade-candy-giver, that comment offended me a bit. So I considered whether I had a good reason to be offended, or if I was just upset that she had brought my attention to some short-coming of mine. It turns out that there is a good reason to worry about Comment #2, and it’s this: if women are given higher evaluations for being easy graders, then the implication that a woman with high evals who is also an easy grader is “a woman of less integrity” is a clear case of victim-blaiming. While I wholeheartedly admire anonymousfemalefaculty’s principles, and think that we should all aspire to being similarly unwavering, I don’t think that we should be so quick to condemn women who both (i) dole out inflated grades, and (ii) receive positive evals. For one, her easy grading might not be motivated by student evaluations. But even if it is, and evals are biased against women, then caving to the pressure to get higher evals so that she can keep her job doesn’t exactly make her guilty of some egregious corruption.

  7. you don’t think we should “condemn” those who “dole out inflated grades”? I should think a defeasible reason for condemnation would be contained in the latter phrase itself, and that irrespective of the gender of the person so doing. You indicated in your first post some reasons you think are adequate defeaters, such as that the student is not a major and is a “nice person”. I think these are not adequate defeaters. I think it’s certainly possible that, insofar as one does this in order to keep one’s job under unjust conditions having to do with the weight and manner in which student evaluations are figured into t&p decisions, that might be an adequate defeater. [Whether or not it’s an adequate defeater, in my view, depends very much on all kinds of other particulars of the situation, including the reasonableness of the belief that so acting is necessary to keep one’s job, rather than simply make one’s life easier. It may well be necessary in some places and under some circumstances.] But even when it is necessary in order to keep one’s job, and even supposing that’s an adequate defeating condition, it’s being morally acceptable to do so to my mind requires, at a minimum, honesty about the fact that that is why one is doling out what one acknowledges to be “inflated grades”, and acknowledgment further that in so doing one thereby contributes to reenforcing a system of inflated grades that makes it more difficult for folks like me who are trying not to doll out “inflated grades”.
    At any rate, my principal point in the original post was addressing Harriet’s question of why there are no comments on this post– and the short answer is that some of us who are well aware of the research are exhausted from the combination of not altering our teaching style in order to accommodate the well-known biases of the student evaluation system, while simultaneously trying point out to our colleagues the reality of the costs of doing so, and so don’t wish to engage over this.

  8. “It may well be necessary in some places and under some circumstances.] But even when it is necessary in order to keep one’s job, and even supposing that’s an adequate defeating condition, it’s being morally acceptable to do so to my mind requires, at a minimum, honesty about the fact that that is why one is doling out what one acknowledges to be “inflated grades”, and acknowledgment further that in so doing one thereby contributes to reenforcing a system of inflated grades that makes it more difficult for folks like me who are trying not to doll out “inflated grades”.”

    I was trying to say that wanting high student evals isn’t the only reason to give inappropriately high letter grades. For some reason, that seems really implausible to you, and I’m not sure why. Then I went slightly off topic because while I think philosophy is valuable to all students, I don’t think that letter grades are appropriate for gen ed or core requirements. But that’s a separate topic, so I’m happy to let it go unless you can somehow tie the value of philosophy courses to biased student evaluations- which might not be too hard to do.

    And if you think that part of the definition of “doling-out inflated grades” is that it’s to be condemned, then it can’t really serve as your defeasible reason for condemning those of us who do it, right? But maybe you think that ‘doling-out inflated grades’ has multiple meanings and one of those meanings serves as a defeasible reason for thinking that another one of those meanings denotes some type of action that’s generally worthy of condemnation. Okay, now I’m just being a jerk, so I’ll stop.

    But back to the lecture at hand: in the nine semesters that I’ve taught philosophy, I have never once read my student evaluations. In fact, unless someone explicitly tells me that I need to distribute them, I won’t even do it. So I can’t say whether or not they’re high. But I can tell you that I hate the idea of student evaluations. I mean with all the work that goes into planning and managing new courses for 60+ students, I just can’t bring myself to read that some kid is mad because I wouldn’t travel several hours out of my way to meet them in person because they couldn’t make my scheduled office hours.

    So I think we might find some common ground in our disdain for student evaluations. It’s just that I feel guilty for not making that trip, and you think I’m making things worse for you by giving grades that I admit aren’t perfectly appropriate.

Comments are closed.