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Uncovering gender bias in student evaluations

| Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Some Notre Dame students treat CIFs seriously, dedicating precious time during finals week to offer feedback that is as accurate and objective as possible. Unfortunately, many students rush through them, anxious to study for finals but also wanting to get their grades early. Both groups of students would probably be surprised, though, to hear their evaluations are extremely gender biased. That is exactly what Philip B. Stark, Kellie Ottoboni and Anne Boring claim in their paper published two weeks ago: “Student Evaluations of Teaching (Mostly) Do Not Measure Teaching Effectiveness.”

In their paper, Stark and Ottoboni of UC Berkley and Borring of the Paris Institute of Political Studies report on their analysis of 23,001 evaluations of 379 instructors by 4,423 students. Their major claim is that “[Student Evaluations of Teaching] are biased against female instructors by an amount that is large and statistically significant.” They report that students were biased even on purportedly objective questions, such as how long a teacher took to grade assignments. The bias was large enough to cause more effective instructors to receive a lower SET rating than less effective instructors.

Some students at Notre Dame may doubt their CIFs are ever read. Professor of French and Francophone Studies Julia Douthwaite, however, said “the results of student CIFs are routinely used to evaluate faculty for renewal and tenure. People who receive less than stellar CIFs are routinely denied renewal and tenure.” That is, they are fired.

This means that students’ gender bias, even if it is unintended, has tragic consequences for the University as whole. More deserving faculty members who have dedicated decades of their lives to teaching, advising and research do not get the recognition, promotion and renewal they deserve. Future students miss out on taking classes from the best teachers. At a university such as Notre Dame, which costs upwards of $60,000 per year, students should want to ensure they are learning from the most effective teachers possible.

Students’ gender bias can actually deprive professors of their civil rights. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin, while the Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA) protects men and women who perform substantially equal work in the same establishment from sex-based wage discrimination. If student gender bias causes professors to be passed over for promotion or paid less because of their gender, they provide Notre Dame deans with biased information, which may cause them to unknowingly transgress these statutes.

What can we do to combat this bias?  Unfortunately, Stark wrote that student “evaluations are biased against female instructors in particular in so many ways that adjusting them for that bias is impossible.” Students, however, can pay more attention to this bias while in class and filling out CIFs, making sure that they are reporting as objectively and truthfully as possible. Deans can recognize this unfortunate and possibly unintended bias while reviewing CIFs. The jobs and civil rights of deserving Notre Dame faculty and the education of future Notre Dame students are in their hands.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Erin Thomassen

I am a freshman double majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies (PLS) and French. PLS (aka the Notre Dame Book Club) is the history of ideas through literature, philosophy, math and science. It was the perfect major for me, because I couldn't possibly choose one subject and hurt the other subjects' feelings. French was also a natural pick, since I have been prancing around my house under the pretense of performing ballet for eighteen years. If someone asks me what I do in my free time, I will tell them that I run and read. What I actually do is eat cartons of strawberries and knit lumpy scarves. If you give me fresh fruit, we will be friends. If we become friends, I will knit you a scarf for Christmas. It may be lumpy, but it will be in your favorite color. And if enough people become my friend, lumpy scarves might just become a trend.

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