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Ask Professor Pedagogy: Student Evaluations

Posted by on Friday, September 21, 2012 in Commentary.

Ask Professor Pedagogy is a twice monthly advice column written by Center for Teaching staff. One aspect of our mission is to cultivate dialogue about teaching and learning, so we welcome questions and concerns that arise in the classroom; particularly those from Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. If you have a question that you’d like Professor P to address, please send it to us.

Dear Professor P,

At the end of every semester I dread looking at my student evaluations.  I put so much work into my courses and I’ve improved immensely since I first started teaching.  Yet, I consistently get negative student comments on my teaching.  Students often say they think I am unprepared or that I mismanage class time.  However, I am a well-respected expert in my field and I am fairly creative in the ways I use class time.  I am wondering if I can trust student evaluations any more.  Are student evaluations valid assessments of good teaching?  I happen to be a woman as well.  Are students biased against women faculty?  In short, should I even listen to my students’ opinions, or are they the ravings of a bunch of petty, entitled, sexists?

Bitterly yours,
Dr. Frustrated

Dear Dr. Frustrated:

Easy now.  Let’s take a breath and remember why we’re here.  I bet, like most faculty, you didn’t get into academic work because you wanted to battle over-inflated egos in departmental meetings, write grant expenditure reports, eat rubber chicken meals at conferences, and lose sleep about how much you’re not publishing.  I’ll bet you chose this career because you love the insights and intellectual life of your discipline and you want to share that love with your peers and students.  Teaching should be a meaningful and invigorating experience, not one that makes you want to talk to your gin about alternative careers.

That said, I feel your pain.  Our lives are busier than students often know or appreciate, therefore they can have unreasonable expectations and display a rudeness that would even make Sasha Baron Cohen blush.

Also, it is worth noting that teaching appears to be a much more complex job once you’re behind the lectern, and it can take time to develop the knowledge and skills required to do it well.  It may be that there are very subtle and minor things that could make a big difference in your teaching effectiveness and evaluations.  Therefore, I definitely recommend you go to one of the awesomely talented staff of your Center for Teaching (CFT) to find assistance analyzing and improving your skills, refining a teaching philosophy, and rediscovering your passion for teaching.  After all, it’s free and they’re just twiddling their thumbs waiting for you to come over and make their lives meaningful.

Now to answer your concluding questions.  First, are student evaluations valid assessments of teaching?  Yes and no.  Most research on the subject suggests that student evaluations of teaching do not vary that much from those of faculty when it comes to the basics of teacher-student interactions: course organization and planning, communication skills, rapport, course difficulty and workload, and grading fairness (Cashin 1995).  Therefore, unless first graders wrote the survey, student opinion on these subjects is fairly valid and reliable.  Where students tend to show less ability to evaluate teaching is in judging faculty expertise (since they haven’t been tortured in our disciplines like we have) and when they expect a low grade (since they may be a bit cranky).  Yet even these interpretations of student evaluation data are a matter of some excruciatingly wonkish debate, a debate that is not likely to vie for public attention like those between Conan v. Leno, Team Jacob v. Team Edward, or of course, Jennifer Aniston v. Angelina Jolie.

Second question: Are students biased around issues of gender?  Hold on to your brain.  Studies that involve quantitative methods and large data sets of student evaluations suggest that gender bias against faculty is small if not insignificant (Fernandez and Mateo 1997; Basow 1998).  Many researchers in this area suggest that various other factors, like the basic skills of teaching, affect student evaluations more than the gender of the instructor.  So, end of story, right?  Not quite.

More focused, qualitative studies of student opinion often reveal evidence of gender prejudice.  In a patriarchal world like ours?   I know, big surprise.  Indeed, the effect of gender may be more subtle but no less profound since it is inseparable from many other dimensions of teaching.  While some studies reveal prejudices whenever students and faculty have different genders (Bachen, McLoughlin and Garcia 1999; Centra and Gaubatz 2000), many others have found that student bias, both positive and negative, is most evident, if at all, when it involves women instructors (Basow 1995).  These biases correspond to frequent reports from men and women faculty about the sometimes strikingly different student evaluations they receive, ones that suggest traditional gender roles still shape very gendered student expectations (Kierstead, D’Agostino and Dill 1988).  To put it crassly, students sometimes expect women faculty to be more caring, supportive, accessible, and attractive than men, and, any violation of these expectations may cause students to question their authority or expertise.  When it comes to how some students talk about their instructors, as Miller and Chamberlin have summarized, “women are teachers, men are professors” (2000).  That said, greater numbers of women and shifting gender roles in the academy do seem to be redefining expectations, however slowly, and thus are making a wider array of teaching styles and pedagogies possible for all faculty.

To sum up, student evaluations can be valid and reliable measures of many elements of good teaching, but they are far from infallible and can, at times, reflect gender or other prejudices that are evident in our broader society.  Therefore, student evaluations should not be the only data source for you as you evaluate your teaching.  Look at your students’ work and determine whether it meets your learning goals.  Ask your departmental peers or those lovable consultants at the CFT to observe your classes or review your evaluations and offer suggestions for improvement.  While you’re at it, ask those CFT consultants to conduct a mid-semester focus group with your students, what they call a “small group analysis,” to gather formative feedback to help avoid poor end-of-semester evaluations.  Lastly, never stop exploring ways to find your passions for, or improved skills of, teaching, and you’ll be far happier.  Of course, if these suggestions don’t work, there’s always medication.

Humbly yours,

Professor P

Interested in talking more about student evaluations? The CFT will be hosting a Conversation on Teaching on Tuesday, September 25, from 4:10-5:30pm to discuss Going Public with Teaching Evaluations. This conversation invites faculty, students and staff to join a dialogue with Tim McNamara (Vice Provost for Faculty and International Affairs), Karen Campbell (Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education, College of Arts and Science), Craig Smith (Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies, Peabody College), and Maryclaire Manard (President of Vanderbilt Student Government). This event will be a forum to begin to address many questions regarding course evaluations.  It also will be an opportunity for faculty to consider how faculty, students and staff might participate in the development of better methods to evaluate learning and teaching at Vanderbilt. Join us!



Bachen, C. M., M. M. McLoughlin, and S.S. Garcia. 1999. “Assessing the role of gender in college students’ evaluations of faculty.” Communication Education, 448(3): 193-210.

Basow, S. A. 1995. “Student evaluations of college professors: When gender matters.” Journal of Educational Psychology. 87(4): 656-665.

—–. 1998. “Student evaluations: Gender bias and teaching styles.” In L. H. Collins, J.C. and K. Quina (Eds.). Career strategies for women in academe: Arming Athena. Thousand Oaks: Sage. pp. 135-156.

Cashin, William E. 1995. “Student Ratings of Teaching: The Research Revisited.” Idea Paper No. 32. Center for Faculty Evaluation and Development, Kansas State University. September.

Centra, J. A. and N. B. Gaubatz. 2000. “Is there gender bias in student evaluations of teaching?” Journal of Higher Education. 71(1): 17-33.

Fernandez, J. and M.A. Mateo. 1997. “Student and faculty gender in ratings of university teaching quality.” Sex Roles. 37(11-12): 997-1003.

Kierstead, D., P. D’Agostino, and H. Dill. 1988. “Sex role stereotyping of college professors: Bias in students’ ratings of instructors.” Journal of Educational Psychology. 80(3): 342-4.

Miller, JoAnn and Marilyn Chamberlin. 2000. “Women Are Teachers, Men Are Professors: A Study of Student Perceptions.” Teaching Sociology. 28(4): 283-98.


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