Ratings of College Professors Reveal Something Other Than Teacher Quality

Hint: It’s not good news for women.
Eddie Murphy in ‘The Nutty Professor.’ (Photo: Universal/Getty Images)
Jan 12, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Is a professor a boring lecturer who assigns rigorous group projects or one who will bake chocolate-chip cookies for the class? Plenty of college students choose to take—or avoid—certain classes based on what they’ve read in course evaluations about a teacher. In turn, adjunct instructors, who now make up more than half the college faculty in the United States, hope their ratings will be good enough to get them rehired at the end of the school year.

The evaluations are already derided in some academic circles because of the hoops instructors will jump through to get students to give them high marks—cookie baking is apparently a winning strategy. A study published last week in the journal ScienceOpen confirms previous research that students’ opinions are unreliable as a tool for assessing teacher quality. Indeed, the researchers found that the evaluations reveal one thing: whether the students who rate the professors are sexist.

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The team of academics from the Paris Institute of Political Studies and the University of California, Berkeley, analyzed five years of evaluation data from a French university and from a 2014 study of one semester of an online course based in the United States. At the French campus, about 40 percent of instructors were women. In the U.S., students in two course sections were led to believe they were being taught by a man, and in the other two, by a woman.

At the French university, male students overwhelmingly rated male instructors higher than they rated female instructors, particularly in subjects such as history, economics, and political science. There was no statistically significant difference in female students’ ratings.

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Meanwhile, at the university in the U.S., researchers found that female students tended to rate male instructors higher than their female counterparts. Female students said the teachers they thought were male were more fair, enthusiastic, respectful, and professional, and that they provided more helpful feedback. The data for male students didn’t show a statistically significant difference in ratings.

It might be tempting to believe that men are just better teachers. However, the researchers crunched the numbers on the roughly 23,000 evaluations from French students and discovered that male students were more likely to rate a male instructor higher even if they didn’t earn as high of a grade as in the female instructor’s class.

The results have dire implications for the job prospects of female faculty members, who have also been shown to be judged by students for their clothing or appearance. But Berkeley researcher Phillip Stark doesn’t believe his team’s findings will end the prevalence of students evaluating teachers.

Stark told Inside Higher Education that he hopes the findings will “bring us closer to ending any use of [student evaluations of teaching] for employment decisions.” But schools won’t make changes on their own, he said. He believes class action lawsuits against campuses that continue to use evaluations to make employment decisions are on the horizon.