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With tenure status and salary on the line, end-of-semester evaluations are important to ISU faculty. However, research at Iowa State has shown an instructor’s gender may be a factor in how students perceive their instructor's effectiveness in the classroom.

In four large lectures — two American government and two biology, each with one section taught by a man and the other by a woman — the researchers randomly assigned two different versions of the end-of-semester course evaluations. One version was the standard evaluation every student receives, and the other included language which reminded students of implicit biases surrounding gender and race and asked students to ensure they were evaluating their instructor solely on what was being asked.

The study found that when students were reminded to be aware of bias, their evaluations of female instructors were .41 points higher as an overall evaluation, .30 points higher for teaching effectiveness and .51 higher for the overall course evaluation.

David Peterson, a professor in political science and researcher on the study, described the gap as “stunningly large” and “much bigger than expected.”

The study was conducted by Peterson, Assistant Professor David Andersen and Assistant Professor Tessa Ditonto, all of the political science department, along with Lori Biederman, an adjunct associate professor in ecology, evolution and organismal biology, and Kevin Roe, an associate professor in natural resource ecology and management.  

Peterson said much of the research surrounding how gender biases affect course evaluations has been observational, which misses “the fact that female faculty will often compensate for [bias] by putting more time into their teaching.”

“It’s well known that there are gender biases, or at least it’s widely believed that there are gender biases, and these [evaluations] are important for hiring, promotion, annual review,” Peterson said. “They get used a lot by the university, so if you know that there’s a bias against you, you are likely to work harder and compensate for that.”

To combat this, the ISU researchers prefered an “experimental approach” rather than an observational one. This also offered a way for the researchers to see what sort of evaluations female instructors may be seeing if biases could somehow be eliminated.

Peterson said finding any way to eliminate implicit biases — regarding gender or any other factor — is important because these evaluations help the administration determine faculty’s salary and position on a tenure track.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of Nov. 1, 2017, the most recent data available, of Iowa State’s 877 tenured, full-time faculty, 634 are men and 502 are white.

However, Peterson said inserting the language from the study in all end-of-semester course evaluations would be the the “worst way” to move forward.

“If students see this more often, they’re going to blow past it,” Peterson said. “I think part of the reason we saw such sizable effects was because these [evaluations] were weird.”

Rather, he said the university may need to make adjustments in the way it evaluates instructors through methods such as peer evaluation and self-evaluation.

“The university should try for more a holistic way to evaluate teaching,” Peterson said. “We should evaluate teaching; it’s important. We should take student input, but there’s a whole lot more we should do.”


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