Students review teachers: gender bias and abrasive language

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Student evaluation of teaching is an essential part of any education system; however it is far from perfect. Teacher evaluation websites highlight its numerous flaws, such as gender bias and abrasive language.

From student reviews on RateMyProfessors.com, it is clear that teachers should be granted a far more comprehensive evaluation system. The way in which students assign grades for example is questionable. It is based on the criteria: ‘helpfulness’, ‘clarity’ and ‘easiness,’ however it doesn’t take into account important aspects such as diligence or engagement. Engagement refers to the behavioural intensity and emotional quality of a person’s active involvement during a task, something that could easily be assessed. The term ‘easiness’ is also problematic, as subjects vary in difficulty, so the standard of teaching is better represented in subjects considered to be less difficult. Student reviews on this website show that quantitative subjects tended to receive the lowest ratings, the subjects of Philosophy and English enjoyed the most frequent use of the word ‘brilliant’, while Computer Science and Biology scored the lowest.

Some question whether students are experienced enough to understand what the teacher is fundamentally trying to provide for them. It has been shown that teachers may be penalized for giving low grades or for telling students they are not working hard enough, yet this is essential for progression. There is a risk teachers will fail to reprimand students for slacking on work because they are concerned that they will receive poor feedback.

In addition, banal and even damaging comments arise in teacher evaluations. Students often use asterisks in reviewing websites to bypass four-letter word restrictions and type words such as “sh*t”. These comments help no-one, are offensive to teachers and diminish enthusiasm. The way in which they undermine teachers could have a strong negative effect on their teaching. Indeed, it was shown in a study of 55 religious school teachers that the stronger the teacher’s belief that their teaching can be successful, the more the teacher supported student autonomy, the interpersonal behaviour which helps build the students’ inner motivational resources and the driving factor behind engagement. So although most evaluations submitted are innocuous, some are unnecessarily abrasive and this could be counterintuitive, hindering the teaching instead of improving it.

As well as the faults in the criteria used to assess teachers, and the language permitted during evaluation, teachers’ appearance and their gender have a strong influence, where physically attractive men are considered to be better overall. A study from Psychological Reports in 1989 found that attractive professors were “judged to be better teachers, more likely to be approached, more likely to be recommended to other students and less likely to be blamed if a student received a failing course grade”.  On RateMyProfessors.com men were more likely to be described as ‘intelligent’ or ‘fun’ whereas female teachers had a higher frequency of the adjectives ‘mean’ or ‘nice’. And finally, as well as the gender of the teacher, the gender of the reviewer confounds the data, as teachers are reviewed differently based on the student taking their course, causing unsubstantiated differences in their evaluation.

Photograph: Jü via Wikimedia Commons

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