Section: Editorial

Awareness is key to avoiding bias in course evaluations

The Monday before finals week, we always get those emails in our inboxes reminding us to submit our course evaluations, warning us that our grades will be held for two weeks beyond the normal release date if we do not complete them.

While they are titled “Course Evaluations,” these are really evaluations of our professors. Each question deals with the way professors structure their classes. While these evaluations seem harmless, filling them out thoughtlessly can have real consequences.

The College takes these evaluations seriously, using them as a part of its pre-tenure review process, decisions to appoint tenure and post-tenure review process. In other words, when you take course evaluations lightly, careers are at stake. 

Studies pulling from different university evaluations show that professor evaluations contain bias against women and faculty of color. Being aware of this fact is the first step in mitigating it.

When you perform your evaluations, be mindful of implicit biases and put real thought into the evaluations you give and the reasonings behind them. One study published in the Journal of the European Economic Association found that male students systematically evaluated female professors, particularly junior faculty, lower than their male colleagues. This bias was highest in mathematics courses.

In another study, published by Innovative Higher Education, students were asked to evaluate professors that they were told were one gender but were in fact another. Male professors that students thought to be female were subjected to gender bias in their evaluations. Other studies show that racial and cultural biases also play a role in evaluations. In general, evaluations run in the favor of white, cisgender men.

This bias can undermine the very purpose of faculty evaluations: Professor Ann Owen of Hamilton College argues that using a biased system in faculty evaluations is institutional discrimination. In fact, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) makes it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or employee based on a variety of lines, including national origin, race, and sex. So, if we use these evaluations to determine tenure positions that are inherently biased against women and minority groups, would their use be against the EEOC and the law?

Evaluations in their current form are demonstrably biased, and to over rely on them without a significant reworking is to run the risk of treating wonderful faculty not only unfairly but also in a discriminatory manner.

The College must reconsider its reliance on biased course evaluations and institute best practices to ensure that these course evaluations are not polluting tenure decisions with systemic bias. In the meantime, we at the Collegian implore students to be aware of the biases that exist in evaluations—biases that exist because of our responses. According to Inside Higher Ed, an experiment at Iowa State University revealed that making students aware of their biases is the first step in mitigating their appearance in course evaluations. Consider yourself aware.

The staff editorial is written weekly by editors-in-chief Becca Foley ’20 and Adam Schwager ’20, and executive director Tommy Johnson ’20. You can contact them at, and, respectively.


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