Study shows gender bias in student evaluations

Adam Driscoll

Adam Driscoll, UW-L assistant professor of sociology and archaeology.

A UW-L faculty member is co-author on a study that shows students in online courses give higher evaluations to their instructors when they think they are men — even when the instructor is actually a woman.

“Student evaluations of their instructors are important for careers in academia. This is how universities evaluate teaching and make promotion and retention decisions,” says Adam Driscoll, UW-L assistant professor of sociology and archaeology, one of the study’s co-authors. “When female instructors are disadvantaged in this way, that matters for their career and highlights broader gender inequalities that exist in our society.”

Their work, published online Dec. 5, is making headlines in national news outlets including NBC, New York magazine and Inside Higher Ed.

The researchers evaluated a group of students in an online course at North Carolina State University. The students were divided into four discussion groups of 8 to 12 students each. A female instructor led two of the groups while a male instructor led the other two.

However, the female instructor told one of her online discussion groups that she was male while the male instructor told one of his online groups that he was female. Because of the format of the online groups, students never saw or heard their instructor. Instructors coordinated to ensure their grading and interactions with students were the same. The instructors responded to student emails, turned in grades and posted on course discussion boards at the same time.

At the end of the course, students were asked to rate the discussion group instructors on 12 different traits covering characteristics related to their effectiveness and interpersonal skills.

The instructors whom the students thought were male received higher ratings on all 12 traits, regardless of whether they were male or female. Differences ranged from half a point to a point difference on a five-point scale. For example, the instructors always posted their grades at the same time, however, the two sections taught by the male received a 4.35 for promptness compared to a 3.55 for promptness for the female.

There was no difference between the ratings of the actual male and female instructors.

Driscoll and co-author Lillian MacNell of North Carolina State University became interested in the topic after teaching different sections of an online course at North Carolina State University where they received different feedback from students. MacNell was receiving complaints about grades while Driscoll and another male instructor had not. The two brought in Andrea Hunt of the University of North Alabama, the study’s third author, to launch the online course study. They hope to expand their study in the future to include more classes and types of courses.

The paper “What’s in a Name: Exposing Gender Bias in Student Ratings of Teaching,” was published online Dec. 5 in the Innovative Higher Education journal.