By Cady Inabinett, Managing editor of content
Filling out course evaluations is a routine part of each semester’s conclusion—giving students the chance to provide feedback about the courses they’ve taken. However, gender bias plays a larger role in course feedback than some students might realize.
Studies have indicated the professors’ gender, race, ethnicity, accent, sexual orientation and disability status all affect how students evaluate their courses. This research also shows, in particular, female professors tend to receive lower scores on course evaluations than their male colleagues.
In general, male professors are perceived as better teachers, more educated, less sexist and more enthusiastic, competent and organized than their female counterparts while also being penalized less for being tougher graders.
Additionally, while course evaluation show that students tend to prefer professors with traditionally masculine traits, they also tend to penalize women who do not conform to feminine stereotypes.
Dr. Cynthia Mwenja, a composition and rhetoric professor at the University of Montevallo, has done research on how bias can affect course evaluations. She said there’s been research conducted across disciplines that shows, “the opinions that students voice at the end of the term, particularly before they see how the term turns out, often put anyone in a minority positionality at a disadvantage.”
These disadvantages are another roadblock for marginalized faculty working in academia, but also pose an “Equal Opportunity issue that is legally actionable if we’re basing tenure and promotion decisions, even in part, on this very unreliable information,” according to Mwenja.
One large issue with course evaluations Mwenja pointed out lies in that fact that they are purported to be numerical data—which they’re not, she says, since they cannot be replicated. She points out that the ratings generated through course evaluations can be easily manipulated by arbitrary actions, such as a professor bringing in cookies to the class on the day that evaluations are filled out.
She also added that, while student feedback can be important information, students also, “don’t have the understanding of the discipline to evaluate the course.”
“They’re not experts in pedagogy,” said Mwenja. “And, so, it can be useful to seek student input, but the way that it’s done in this format that appears to be sound, statistically, scientifically-collected data—it’s not.”
Montevallo political science professor Dr. Andrea Eckelman says she’s noticed some key differences in the feedback she receives in course evaluations compared to her male colleagues, specifically through comments that are focused about her clothing and appearance.
“It’s not even that it’s necessarily negative, but it’s not, you know, useful feedback,” she said.
When asked why she thinks women professor get these types of comments more often on course evaluations than men, Eckelman said, “I think it just stems from really deep-seated ideas and notions of what women should be and women’s place.”
Eckelman, who teaches a course focused on women in politics, pointed towards historical ideas and narratives that have relegated women to focusing on their looks and pleasing men.
Mwenja also spoke on colleagues who had received similar feedback based around their appearance.
“The same sorts of ways we evaluate women as a society show up in these course evaluations. Like, the students don’t seem willing or able often to see women in terms of their professional life,” she said.
Course evaluation comments can also have a real impact on professors’ careers. Montevallo uses evaluations as part of professors’ tenure and promotion packets. They are also used in activity reports, the once-a-year review of courses professors must do evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the classes they teach.
Eckelman says biased course evaluations can make these processes more difficult for women professors. Because of this, she pointed out, there’s been trends in higher education to move away from student course evaluations as the primary means of review for faculty.
“That’s kind of been the push across high ed, because we know that there is research that shows that there is gender bias—especially for Black women and Latina professors. So, we know that that exists, so as an institution, right, academia should stop utilizing them when we know that you’re punished,” Eckelman said.
She continued, “But I don’t think anybody’s thought of a better substitute for how to determine what someone is doing in the classroom.”
Eckelman also pointed out that Montevallo uses observations as a form of faculty evaluation as well, where, once a semester, senior program colleagues and department chairs sit in and observe classes.
This isn’t a perfect system either, though, according to Eckelman who said, “That’s just one tiny snapshot, and you know they’re coming, you know?”
To create better course evaluation feedback, Eckelman suggested emphasizing the course as a focus and not the professor. She pointed out, in recent years, Montevallo has made changes to the wording of some questions on course evaluations to make sure that course material is emphasized rather than the professor, but, “There’s still some issues where I think there’s space for students to answer specifically about the professor versus the class if they don’t understand exactly what’s being asked about the class.”
Mwenja emphasized this focus as well, saying that centering instruction over instructors in evaluations, “does tend to start to even the playing field.”
For students filling out course evaluations, Mwenja said, “I am a rhetorician and I feel like understanding the rhetorical situation in which you’re communicating is key.”
She said she likes to communicate to her students, “what’s operating, who they’re communicating to, how it fits in with my trajectory with tenure and promotion,” as a way to illustrate what role their opinions and feedback play in faculty evaluations.
Eckelman shared similar suggestions for students, such as focusing on, “what was done in the class and, like, how the content was delivered and then think about are there ways that it could’ve been better” instead of the professor personally, as well as providing specific examples of how their learning has been affected while giving critiques and suggestions.
Cady Inabinett is the managing editor of content for The Alabamian. She’s majoring in English and double-minoring in political science and peace and justice studies. She enjoys reading, watching movies and generally just being pretentious in her free time.