Ratings of college professors reveal something other than teacher quality

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Is a professor a boring lecturer, one who assigns rigorous group projects, or one who will bake chocolate chip cookies for the class? Plenty of college students chose to take—or avoid—certain courses because of what they have read in course evaluations about a professor. In turn, adjunct instructors, who are now more than half of college faculty in the United States, pray that their ratings will be good enough to get them re-hired at the end of the school year.

As a result, the evaluations are already derided in some academic circles because of the hoops instructors will go through to get students to give high marks—cookie baking is apparently a
winning strategy. Now a new study published last week in the journal ScienceOpen Research confirms previous research that students evaluation are unreliable as a tool for evaluating teacher quality. Indeed, the researcher found that the evaluations tend to reveal one thing: whether the students who evaluated the professor are sexist.

RELATED: How Gender Bias Survives at Today's Colleges

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 data 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, while 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.

RELATED: Sad Pro Tip for Female Teachers: You'll Win Over Students by Changing Your Name

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

It might be tempting to some 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 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 student evaluations of teaching.

Stark told Inside Higher Education that he hopes their 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, said Stark. He believes that class action lawsuits against campuses that continue to use evaluations to make employment decisions are on the horizon.

Teacher's reviews aren't the only things facing a negative effect of gender inequality:
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