Student Evaluations of Teaching in Higher Education Fail Everyone

Few organizations have as high a concentration of people with advanced degrees as colleges and universities.

People with doctorates insure that debates and decision making will be tedious and laborious; however, those decisions are as negatively influenced by tradition and biases as you can find anywhere, regardless of how well educated everyone is.

One of the greatest examples of the failures of higher education is the use of student evaluations of teaching (SET), a traditional system whereby students offer feedback on their professors and then those evaluations serve in different ways during the annual evaluations of professors as well as the tenure and promotion process.

What is the problem? Well, this is an example of tradition trumping evidence (and, again, you’d think well educated people would prefer evidence over the inertia of tradition) because research for many years has shown that SET are biased against the most marginalized groups of faculty—women, people of color, international faculty, etc.

Once again, two studies confirm the inherent bias of SET, as reported by Colleen Flaherty:

Two new studies on gender bias in student evaluations of teaching look at the phenomenon from fresh—and troubling—angles. One study surveyed students at the beginning of the semester and after their first exam and found that female instructors faced more backlash for grades given than did male instructors. The other study examined how ageism relates to gender bias in student ratings, finding that older female instructors were rated lower than younger women. The second study was longitudinal, so students were rating the same women more poorly over time, even as these professors were gaining teaching experience.

Both studies suggest that as women become more “agentic,” demonstrating agency via stereotypically male-associated traits, they are punished for violating gender norms with lower student ratings.

Ratings and Gender Bias, Over Time

These studies have some nuances, but essentially, this fits into a very robust body of research that shows SET is harmful for faculty diversity, and thus, for students and colleges/universities:

We are well past time to set SET aside, and admit that tradition is not a valid reason to continue to erode efforts toward diversity, equity, and inclusion through rhetoric alone.