Student evaluations – how bias shows up when you’re just trying to get some honest feedback.

This week’s Diversity Journal Club (#DiversityJC), we discussed student evals and bias

What’s in a name? In student reviews of their professors, something that can be important for improving your teaching and potentially for your institution, do they rate men better?

Is this just another way in which bias manifests? Is this study just another example of the way we all bring stereotypes to bear in our everyday lives?

Ian Street (@IHStreet) further wondered if student evaluations of their professors might be a “particularly keen” way to identify implicit bias, because students rarely spend much time on them – they’re answered quickly and on impulse (I remember them being administered generally at the end of class, for instance).

And it’s not along gendered lines just for the students

Agreed. We are all subject to culturally constructed biases. As Ruth Hufbauer (‏@hufbauer ) pointed out, “the bias goes both ways.” Simply because we below to one group or another does not mean that we are immune to them.

Student reviews of teaching may be a clear indicator of bias, but they’re also another example of how that bias affects us. These evaluations are used by professors – and sometimes by schools. While not used in every institution and sometimes only in extreme cases. They still can mean something.


Biased student evaluations could be harmful beyond just the individual, too.

Are student evaluations really a tool we should be using? Kim Hannula (‏@stressrelated) and Anne Jefferson (‏@highlyanne) noted they didn’t think they were useful to identify good teaching, but perhaps to denote really bad teaching or inappropriate behavior. R. Deborah Overath (‏@scienceknitster) agreed that they weren’t a good metric – but raised the question of what to use in their place? Because even if they aren’t used heavily by a school, student feedback remains very important to professors who want to improve.

Moreover, they do have impacts on professors beyond giving incorrect information instead of helpful feedback. In a profession where we are already critiqued by our peers, negative feedback that has no real basis in teaching ability can be really impactful –

I’d say this is probably even more problematic for someone early in their careers (or is that just me?).

To work on the problem of evaluations, Ruth Hufbauer (@hufbauer) shared some ideas she had on evaluations: giving one to students that she read, and one she said went to her boss.

Others agreed that student evaluations needed to be improved, and some shared ideas on how to do that, such as evals designed specifically for each class (Anne Jefferson, @highlyanne), and as before and after “quizzes” (Ruth Hufbauer, @hufbauer). In response to bias in evals in particular, Laura Williams (@MicroWaveSci) recommended institutions stay informed on the research, and use it to improve the format and content of evals, e.g. to be very careful about wording and phrasing. AnalyticallyFabulous ‏@analyticallyfab noted an easy one: throw out any comment about appearance (this sounds a bit silly, but I can only imagine just how important this small step probably is!). Later, Abhi (@abhichand) noted:

Regardless of the method or how to address the evals themselves, the issue still remained. As Doctor PMS (@Doctor_PMS) reminded us…

In addition – stereotypes go well beyond gender!

And this makes for a really, really complicated picture.

And we’re back to understanding this study, and that similar conclusions would result if you could look along other stereotypes, as another to demonstrate how bias infiltrates how we live our lives and the actions we take.

And this, my dear twitter friends, is what we’re all here for and it’s not a problem we’re going to solve in an hour.

But we can start talking about it – and student evaluations are one way to really start doing that. In my opinion, they actually provide a really clear example of stereotypes that might prove useful for starting the conversation, and starting initiatives that get at the systemic problem…

Even if it’s tough, and even if it will take time, and those initiatives are about way more than student evaluations.

Moreover, as Laura Williams (@MicroWavesSci) further pointed out, faculty collectively need to be on board, and I’d add the administration too. I think this collective effort is critical, and Laura also noted that students need to hear about bias and its implications and importance in many classes. It needs to be a collective and repeated statement. In addition, there can be ways to get students thinking about bias as it pertains specifically to their evaluations.

Although, again, this would likely be far more effective if part of a larger conversation about bias that was happening at that institution. Part of education, and of a message students had heard and discussed before.

For me, this was another reason to have these conversations and to study bias with students as part of their education – as early as possible, certainly, but at the very least in college. We all arrive on campus as children, and leave looking forward towards being adults (or maybe you were one – I still had some ways to go). It’s where we screw around and screw up and learn on our own – where we discover, hopefully, what we want to do with our lives. Why not also start learning about being socially responsible too? At the very least, it might give your professors some more productive and real feedback.


Finally, a few articles shared by the group:

Dynamic Ecology on teacher evaluations: “Evaluating Teaching
NPR Blog “If Your Teacher Likes You, You Might Get a Better Grade

Another reference in response to how the RateMyProfessor tool has been reported came out after the convo, but is also of interst!

Thank you all for another great discussion, those that joined and just followed along! As always – hope I got everyone, let me know if I spelled anything wrong or missed any body. Give these kids a follow and hope to see you all at the next one!

Ian Street (@IHStreet)
R. Deborah Overath (@scienceknitster)
Ruth Hufbauer (@hufbauer)
Anne Jefferson (@highlyanne)
Rebecca Pollet (@rmpollet)
Kim Hannula (@stressrelated)
Laura Williams (@MicroWaveSci)
Amy Lossie (@ilovepigenetics)
AnalyticallyFabulous (@analyticallyfab)
Abhi (@abhichand)
V. Siva (@DrVidSiva)
Cassie (@mosquito_chaser)
K.A. Woytonik (@SonicWoytonik)
And even… PinkGlitteryBrain (@aiquintero) just under the wire! 😉


Please leave any additional thoughts or questions in the comments – or if you have more to say, consider writing up a guest blog and we’ll post it!

Til next time kids!

Emily (@DrEmilySKlein)
Doctor PMS (@Doctor_PMS)



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