“I’ll be back in 10 minutes,” your professor says towards the end of the semester.
Orange-coloured Scantron papers circulate thoughout the classroom and you stare at the question, “what is your expected grade in this course?” with grief or glee.
You know the drill. Grabbing a pencil or blue or black pen, you move on to “Section Two: Instructor Evaluation.” You scribble in boxes and then sit back after providing your "honest truth" feedback, slamming the prof. After all, you’re getting D’s and you just don’t relate to him or her. Or the prof's a woman, right?
That last consideration is plausible, at least, according to a study published last week.
The research suggests student instructor evaluations are better gauges of students’ gender biases and grade expectations than they are at measuring teaching effectiveness.
While the study specifically focuses on student gender bias, its findings are raising questions at Western and other universities about the accuracy of student course evaluations as a whole.
“There’s a bigger issue here and that’s whether student evaluations are hopelessly biased in a whole bunch of ways,” said Western assistant professor of sociology, Doug Mann.
Besides gender, Mann pointed out variables like race or age that can dramatically influence a professor’s student evaluations of teaching (SETs) depending on the pre-existing biases students bring to the classroom. In addition, Mann said students reward teachers for light course workloads, high grades, mild criticism and “relatability” over skillful teaching.
“The ideal course at Western … is one taught by a young, attractive professor who doesn’t give a lot of work, who doesn’t criticize his or her students and who gives as high marks as they can within the system they work with,” Mann said.
This problem, other university lecturers agree, is leading to North American grade inflation and instructors pandering to students in the hopes of receiving favourable feedback.
Second-year BMOS student Ashley Sawchuck acknowledged the end-of-course SETs can paint a distorted picture of the instructor.
“Even if the professor is bad, I feel like for me at least, if I do well in the course I’m like, 'oh yeah, this is a great course, the prof can’t be that bad,' ” Sawchuk said.
On the other hand, Western vice-provost academic programs John Doerksen said there's a lot of research on the evaluation of teaching and courses that supports "evidence on all sides of the debate."
“We have had a look at the outcomes of Western’s questionnaire and there isn’t evidence of gender bias in them,” Doerksen said, in response to the recent study. "For us [at Western], we feel that the course evaluations are at least some measure of the effectiveness of teaching."
He added the student questionnaires are only one tool Western uses to evaluate its faculty.
“There are other ways that we can also use to demonstrate effectiveness in teaching and learning and that includes … peer assessments," he said. "There are various ways that faculty members have an opportunity to have reflections on their teaching.”
Still, Mann and other profs point out that for a tool that can produce potentially skewed results, student questionnaires shouldn't influence university hiring decisions.
On the registrar’s website, the University states student course evaluations “will be used as feedback to the instructor and as a source of information considered in decisions regarding promotion and tenure.”
Still, Doerksen said the degree to which the student questionnaires are influential varies by Western faculty and department. He emphasized that during the University's faculty associations last negotiation period, a working group was assigned to take a "careful look" at Western's student questionnaire to ensure its questions and format produce as fair and unbiased results as possible.
Overall, Doerksen said the University is open to exploring new methods and formats of SETs. Specifically, Doerksen wants SETs to be set up so they can help instructors determine what's working for students and what's not before the semester is over.
"We are looking at ways of trying to make the instrument better and more effective," Doerksen said. "I would like to see us get to a place where a faculty member could ask the class in the middle of the term what are some teaching practices that are effective and what could be improved, so I’m hoping we can get to a point where’s there’s a formative element as well."
Mann maintained that as long as students and administrators view education as a commodity purchased by consumers — students — SETs will be meaningless.
"Students see themselves as consumers," Mann said. "As soon as you take that consumer mentality into the classroom, if you don’t get what you expect, which is a high grade, you’ll pay your professors back."