Faculty call for review of student teacher evaluations, say they’re often sexist or incomplete

In the past few weeks, thousands of UBC students have filled out evaluations of their teachers. But some professors say that those evaluations are not only unhelpful — but potentially harmful.

Concerns over potential bias by students in Student Evaluations of Teachers (SETs), particularly based on gender, have created doubt about their efficacy and the frequent use of discriminatory language in reviews.

The frequency of inappropriate comments about professors unrelated to their actual teaching effectiveness — especially for female professors — have raised concerns that the evaluations are not only unhelpful but harmful.

“If the bias literature is right, [the administration is] just walking into a human rights complaint,” said Dr. Alan Richardson, UBC Faculty Association (UBCFA) VP and philosophy professor.

Along with English Instructor Dr. Katja Thieme and philosophy Professor Dr. Carrie Jenkins, Richardson have brought forward a motion via the UBCFA that calls for an “immediate, evidence based review of the Student Evaluation of Teaching policy, with specific reference to whether student evaluations of teaching are to be used as evidence in any summative assessment of teaching effectiveness.”

One study had students evaluate online courses with randomized male or female names. Almost invariably, students rated the male names higher than the female names, regardless of the actual gender of the professor.

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At UBC, much of the data collected by evaluations has also been incomplete.

Recent documents presented to the Senate show that only 63 per cent of classes had enough responses to meet the minimum response rate in the Winter 2017 session, meaning these results likely do not give a full picture of each teacher’s effectiveness.

A better form of feedback

All stakeholders agree that student feedback is important — but they acknowledge the current system doesn’t work.

Richardson said that he values student feedback, but hopes to see “the Senate … recognize that there are serious problems with the use of student evaluations” for summative purposes and to “think in a more serious way” about what teaching effectiveness entails.

Rather than do away with SETs completely, administrators and faculty hope that SETs can be modified so that students are more aware of what they’re actually used for and the actual consequences of insults or discriminatory language in a review.

AMS VP Academic and University Affairs Max Holmes agreed that, one way or another, students should have the ability to review their professor’s performance.

“We view student evaluations of teaching as a valuable resource … not only for the university but also for individual faculty members,” said Holmes.

In a written statement, Associate Provost of Learning and Teaching Dr. Simon Bates stated that they are in the process of putting together a “working group of students and Faculty … to take stock of student evaluations of teaching.”

Holmes says the SETs need to “adapt to a changing environmental environment,” adding that he’s in favour of “creating some sort of review body to look at student evaluations of teaching.” But he noted they shouldn’t be done away with completely.

“It is really important that we don’t jump to conclusions right now, that we don’t determine what we want to do right now, until there’s been a comprehensive review that has stakeholders from throughout the community, especially stakeholders that represent the academic community,” said Holmes.