Professors: student course evaluation feedback typically biased

At the end of the semester, Westminster College asks students to fill out course evaluation in Canvas to provide feedback to their professors. Administrators said only 40 percent of students generally choose to complete their course evaluations and professors said students’ responses are often biased against women and people of color. Photo by Casie Peterson.

At the end of the semester, Westminster College asks students to fill out course evaluation in Canvas to provide feedback to their professors. Administrators said only 40 percent of students generally choose to complete their course evaluations and professors said students’ responses are often biased against women and people of color. Photo by Casie Peterson.

At the end of every semester, Westminster College asks its students to complete course evaluations that provides professor with feedback about the class. Though the intentions behind the assessments are good, some say the evaluations cause more harm than intended. 

"Course evaluations are a system that is as important as it is flawed," said Kara Barnette, an associate professor of philosophy. 

Though Barnette said student feedback is necessary for a teacher's growth, she said course evaluations are also problematic. 

"There are a lot of studies that have marked bias against women of all races [and] bias against people of color of all genders," Barnette said. "In addition to that, there is a well-established bias that occurs in courses that are on issues of identity." 

Barnette said the pushback in evaluations happens when course material includes topics of racism, sexism, trans rights, or anything that questions established systems of privilege. According to an NPR study, the language students use in course evaluations differs greatly based on the gender of the teacher they are evaluating. 

The study found that male professors are more likely to be evaluated on their knowledge while female professors are more likely to receive comments about their nurturing characteristics. 

"Female professors in comparison to male professors cannot teach in the exact same way and get the exact same responses," Barnette said. "If I were to do the things that come off as challenging and inspiring and wonderful in a lot of regards for male professors that are white—I come off as a bitch," Barnette said. 

Barnette said the emotional turmoil caused by course evaluations often outweighs the usefulness they provide as a professional tool. 

"Professors develop systems for reading through and responding to course evaluations in completely diverse ways," Barnette said. "I know some professors will wait a certain amount of time, like a couple months or something, before they read the evaluations so that particular emotions don’t get wrapped up into it." 

Barnette said she reads evaluations as soon as they are available and takes them very seriously. However, she said she's noticed that she often struggles to understand important points if the feedback contains vague language. 

Nonetheless, Barnette said course evaluations are more important at Westminster than at most other schools because the college has no tenure system, and they therefore play a large role in decisions about retention and promotions. 

Sean Raleigh, chair of the data and science department, is the faculty liaison in charge of scheduling course evaluations and gathering data and said he has several bias analyses of the data planned for the future. 

However, he noted that the data Westminster has does not accurately represent the entire student body. Raleigh said only 40 percent of Westminster students typically respond to course evaluations. 

"We suspect that students generally who fill out course evaluations tend to either really enjoy the courses or they really hate the courses," Raleigh said. 

Raleigh said the timing of course evaluations is also problematic and can skew the data, as well. 

"We are asking you all to reflect on an experience A) at the most stressful point of the semester and B) at a point in the semester where you have not even finished the course yet," Raleigh said. "You haven't even hit the full learning objective of the course as it has been served to you by that final week." 

Han Kim, an associate professor and director of the public health program, said he agrees the timing of course evaluations is problematic and added that the evaluations only measure short-term effectiveness. 

"You're looking at short-term outcomes," Kim said. "Some of the best courses I had I gave bad reviews. Only years later did I appreciate those courses." 

Kim said he thinks doing course evaluations a few years down the road would improve the quality of evaluation responses. 

"There are students that give us useful feedback but mixed into those are the really toxic feedbacks," Kim said. "For some women and some people of color, they are toxic to the point they're misogynist, racist and for faculty to read those... they are really painful." 

For this reason, Kim said he understands why some faculty who are members of oppressed or minority groups choose to protect themselves by not reading their evaluations. 

"White male faculty are set to a very different standard than all the rest of us," he said. "That’s very problematic."