Nice legs - shame about the teaching

February 1, 2002

Universities are putting increasing emphasis on student evaluation forms but, warns Zazie Todd, they can reveal more about gender biases than the quality of tuition.

The last class has ended. The students are noisily rushing out of the room and someone dumps a pile of paper on your table. They are the feedback forms, the students' evaluation of your teaching. What does the average lecturer do with them? Glance through them for a few minutes, store them in a filing cabinet somewhere for when the "quality" inspector calls. Think hard about the comments, positive and negative, and draw on them to improve teaching style? Query why so much attention is being paid to what students think?

One thing is certain. Feedback forms are part and parcel of the growing mountain of paperwork academics are expected to deal with. Some institutions require lecturers to write a short report on what the feedback tells them and what they plan to do about it. Others take a less formal approach but expect you to discuss it with a mentor or appraiser. The underlying assumption is that student feedback is useful and politically correct. But what lecturer has not seen comments such as "nice legs!" or "awful jumpers" or comments that suggest the student missed - or slept through - the entire course?

Students are biased, and research suggests they can be particularly biased when it comes to gender. It is simplistic to say that female lecturers get lower ratings than males. But the finding of student bias does seem to be robust: students give the highest ratings to academics who are the same gender as themselves. This particularly affects lecturers working in subjects where classes are either mostly male or mostly female.

Susan Basow of Lafayette College in the United States has carried out a number of studies on gender patterns in students' evaluation of teaching. In a recent paper, Best and Worst Professors : Gender Patterns in Students' Choices , she describes how she asked students to think of their "best" and "worst" lecturers and describe them. Like other studies, she found that female students were most likely to choose a female academic as their best, and male students more likely to choose a male academic. There was no such effect for worst lecturers.

The descriptions that students gave of their best lecturers were interesting. While both male and female best lecturers were described as caring and knowledgeable, best male lecturers were also likely to be described as interesting and organised, while best female lecturers were likely to be described as helpful and fair. This suggests that nurturing traits are seen as more important for female academics than for males, although they were still important for men.

Since gender influences evaluations in complex ways, it might have a bigger effect in some cases than in others. Basow has drawn up a checklist of factors whose presence would suggest that bias is more likely. This includes a stereotypically male subject area and factors relating to status, such as the level of course and the rank of the academic, with lower status leading to greater risk of bias. Since women are disproportionately on the lower rungs of academe, they might be more at risk of these biases. Though written for female academics, the checklist can be applied equally to men, but, since Basow suggests that the boundaries of acceptable behaviour are wider for men than for women, the likely effect of any bias it shows would be smaller.

The role of gender in student evaluations is subtle, and other factors are also important. There is some suggestion that male and female academics have different teaching styles, which may also affect ratings. However, age also plays a role in this - younger academics are more likely to have attended training on teaching in higher education and perhaps to have more active student participation in their classes. This could have obvious consequences if teaching evaluations were used as a promotional criterion.

If students have a tendency to prefer lecturers of the same gender as themselves, then academics in a department where most of the students are either male or female might find this affecting their ratings. We might predict that female lecturers in a psychology department where most of the students are female would get slightly higher ratings than male staff; and vice versa for a subject such as mathematics, where most students are male. This would have knock-on effects for departments if they were required to publish student ratings: poorer ratings might reflect the gender balance (or lack of balance) of the academic staff, rather than poorer teaching per se.

The argument for gender may also hold true for ethnicity, age, teaching style and how well the students know staff. There has not been enough research in the field to know how important these factors are. But, since universities seem to be placing increasing emphasis on student evaluations of teaching, it is important to find out how useful they really are.

Feedback can tell us about our teaching, about whether or not students could read the overheads or find the books in the library, and even whether they enjoyed the course. Students come to university with their own backgrounds, beliefs and prejudices. We cannot expect them to lose them simply because we ask them to fill out a questionnaire.

Zazie Todd is lecturer in social psychology at the University of Leeds.

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