Diversity now? What’s Wrong with Student Evaluations of Teaching

1 Feb

Do students’ course evaluations properly measure the quality of teaching? Quantitative and qualitative research have underlined many biases, the most well-known being that students tend to give a lower rating to a course when the mark they obtain for it is low. Conversely, the higher their mark, the higher they are likely to rate the course. But there is more: lecturers’ personality and perceived beauty, gender, ethnicity, skin colour and accent all impact on the ways in which students rate courses and lecturers. Many studies have shown that women are overall rated lower regarding their competence. Furthermore, students expect lecturers to fit social stereotypes: female lecturers receive equal evaluation than their male colleagues only if they display a behaviour that is stereotypically feminine – caring, friendly and approachable. In other words, as in other workplaces, women are compelled to undertake ‘emotional labour’: being likable rather than competent becomes a central factor for their professional success[1]. Various studies also find that ‘minority’ lecturers obtain significantly lower ratings and are perceived as less credible and intelligible than ‘white’ lecturers. Regarding language, ratings of lecturers’ effectiveness are systematically lower for those whose first language is not English, other things being equal. This lower rating is not attributable to less proficiency in English but results from student perceptions of less teaching preparation, less enthusiasm, a less interactive teaching mode and looser marking standards. In other words, there is a form of antilocution, which entails negative evaluation of foreigners and their ability to behave in accordance with the norms and habits of the host country. All of these factors are not independent but interact with each other: for example, in American universities black female lecturers tend to be rated particularly low.

In other words, we can question the accuracy of these evaluations. For instance, like me you may have received low evaluations for the accessibility of your course readings, despite the fact you only include works that are available online or in the library. Being a sociologist, I know that no survey is perfect and totally reliable. I also know that numbers do not speak for themselves and they need to be interpreted. But we face a problem of paramount importance when the university management perceives students’ course evaluations as a self-evident ‘truth’, and hence uses them as an objective indicator of teaching quality for the purpose of staff probation and promotion. Not only does it introduce arbitrariness in the management of human resources, but acting on faith on evaluations that are affected by lecturers’ gender, ethnicity and accent unavoidably maintains or intensifies discrimination. You thought discrimination was not an issue in HE? At Queen’s, like elsewhere in the UK, four professors out of five are men. The reports of the Equality Challenge Unit have thrown light on Black and Ethnic Minority staff’s widespread experience of prejudice in UK universities. They express feelings that their leadership ability is questioned, feel isolated and marginalised, and report heavier workload, scrutiny, lack of support and difficulties in gaining promotion.

Students’ evaluations are a relatively useful tool to reflect on our teaching and try to improve it. But acting on the basis of their content to promote or make staff permanent might simply institutionalise sexism and racism. If Queen’s wants to claim that equality and diversity are central to the culture of this university, the ways students’ evaluations are currently used in an unquestioned manner need serious and urgent consideration.


Véronique Altglas



[1] See S. Cunnane, ‘It is a popularity contest, sisters’ THE, 7 October 2010.


One Response to “Diversity now? What’s Wrong with Student Evaluations of Teaching”

  1. Zee November 7, 2012 at 9:38 pm #

    This is very interesting, i never though of it like that. The bit where you mentioned about level of English being a determinants in assessing how good a lecturer is, is indeed very true and I have witnessed it in my own lecture. Brilliant piece!

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