‘Perfect 10’ wariness reveals gender bias in student evaluations

Switching to a six-point scale in surveys eliminates perceived gap in teaching performance, study finds

February 12, 2019
Ten

Students are much more reluctant to give female lecturers a “perfect 10” in teaching evaluations than men but rate them equally highly when a different scale is used, a study has found.

The experiment – which found that the apparently minor tweak to a six-point scale virtually eliminated gaps in survey scores in male-dominated fields – suggests that learners are likelier to associate “genius” or “brilliance” with male academics and raises further doubts about the reliability of student feedback, according to researchers.

In their paper, due to be published in the American Sociological Review, Northwestern University’s Lauren Rivera and András Tilcsik from University of Toronto outline how one North American university’s decision to switch from a 10-point satisfaction scale to a six-point one had radically altered the distribution of marks.

Under the 10-point scale, in four subject areas that  were most male-dominated in terms of staffing, 31.4 per cent of men’s ratings were a perfect 10 – making it the most common result – whereas only 19.5 per cent of women’s scores were. Eight was the most common score for women, whose average score was about a point lower than men’s.

However, under the six-point scale, there was no substantial difference in the frequency of the top rating being awarded: sixes accounted for 41.2 per cent of men’s ratings, and 41.7 per cent of women’s scores. Likewise, there was no longer a major difference in the average scores of men and women.

The stronger performance of women using a six-point scale was probably explained by the tendency of students to regard female academics as being “merely good rather than brilliant”, Dr Rivera told Times Higher Education.

Students felt more able to award a six-out-of-six score to women since it did not have the same associations of “genius” or “brilliance” more commonly attached to male tutors and accompanied by 10-out-of-10 ratings, she said.

“Whereas 10 out of 10 elicited images of perfect performance that don’t fit with our typical image of female faculty, the six-point scale didn’t carry such heavy cultural connotations of flawless performance,” Dr Rivera said.

This “enabled a wider range of performance…to be recognised as meriting top marks, which closed the gender gap that used to exist in the most male-dominated fields in our sample”, she added.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Gender bias in student evaluations revealed

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Reader's comments (2)

I have been talking about this for some time. The men nearly always score higher. They also don't have to work as hard to get and keep the attention of students. So glad someone has finally called this out because performance evaluations conducted by managers often refer to course feedback scores and this means that once again, male colleagues are scoring higher.
Switching from a ten point to a six point scale resulting in a large difference in survey results suggests that something is wrong with the way in which the survey is carried out. What happens if the scale is reduced to 4 points, or increased to 15 points, or perhaps 20 points? One has to conclude the survey (like so many similar surveys) is meaningless as it stands.

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