School of Thought: Be wary of bias in course evaluations

Joscelyn Stocks | Daily Trojan

Toward the end of every semester, students start to receive emails asking them to complete course evaluations for each class they’re enrolled in. The University pushes them to complete these evaluations incessantly, even going so far as having instructors allocate class time for filling them out.

On the surface, these evaluations seem great — they let students give their professors feedback so they can ostensibly improve their courses for future students. They also allow students an anonymous forum to bring up issues that they wouldn’t otherwise feel comfortable sharing with their professors.

But the reality is much more complex, and can often introduce gender and racial bias toward instructors whose course evaluations can play a large role in their professional futures.

For teaching assistants and writing instructors early in their careers, achieving tenure is a long journey. Course feedback is often required when applying for new jobs in higher education, and the University considers the evaluations when instructors are up for promotions.

“I think sometimes students don’t consider who is going to be reading these things,” Ali Rachel Pearl, a writing instructor in the Thematic Option program at USC told me in an email. “I’m on the job market this year, which means jobs I’m applying to are requesting student evals as evidence of my teaching effectivity. I don’t think that’s something most students have in mind when they write these.”

For professors who already have tenure, course evaluations mean next to nothing. Their job security is nearly immutable, so feedback from students doesn’t affect them, unless the professor takes the time to incorporate feedback on their own account.

“I remember that, as a university student myself, I considered evaluations as a moment when I got to deploy some agency, but I was often frustrated when I had to confront the fact that professors who I most heavily critiqued for poor pedagogy or unhealthy classroom environments were unlikely to read or be impacted by their evals,” Pearl said.

And these evaluations aren’t reliable indicators of faculty performance; according to a 2016 Studies in Educational Evaluation study, student learning outcomes don’t correlate with the teaching evaluations. Only 1 percent of variability in student learning could be explained by course reviews.

Many of these skewed ratings can be attributed to bias against female teachers and teachers of color. A 2014 study in the Innovative Higher Education journal found that evaluations on a five-point scale of online courses with randomly assigned female instructor names are rated half a point lower than those for identical courses with randomly assigned male instructor names.

While there haven’t been any significant studies analyzing bias in evaluations for faculty of color, one can expect biases — subconscious or otherwise — to make their way into the evaluations in the same way they do for women. Stereotypes, appearance and tone of voice were all listed as factors that contribute to gender bias in evaluations, according to Inside Higher Ed. All of these factors contribute to bias toward people of color, both in and out of the classroom.

Major racial and gender disparities in currently tenured professors still exist. A 2016 study from USC’s Office of Institutional Research found that 73.8 percent of tenured professors are men, and 65 percent are white. Some of these disparities can be explained by the systemic bias in class evaluations because of the importance of course reviews in determining which professors get tenure.

However, fixing this issue isn’t easy. Student voices should matter in determining an instructor’s performance, but attempting to erase bias is essentially impossible. I don’t expect universities to stop using course evaluations anytime soon, but they should take them with a grain of salt — especially for the population’s most underrepresented in tenured faculty. And evaluations shouldn’t play as large of a factor in hiring or promotion decisions as the instructor’s academic scholarship and contributions to the University community beyond scholarship.

When you fill out your course evaluations this semester, consider the implications of the feedback you give. Consider the subconscious biases that might be affecting your review of a course, and consider what your feedback might mean for your instructors. Changes on the University’s end won’t happen quickly, but being conscious of your own role in the evaluation process can still make a significant difference.

Karan Nevatia is a sophomore majoring in journalism. He is also a multimedia editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “School of Thought,” runs every other Thursday.