Grade inflation tied to women in insecure teaching roles

Woman inflating balloon

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Grade inflation appears to be more common when instructors are women on short-term contracts, a study by two US economics researchers has found.

The finding, derived from a decade of data at a major US research university, reflects the combination of gender-related and financial vulnerabilities facing such teachers when they award grades, the researchers said in the Economics of Education Review.

“All lecture faculty are going to be very sensitive to their teaching evaluation,” said one co-author, Veronica Sovero, an assistant professor of economics at San Francisco State University. “But it’s going to be even stronger for these female faculty who are on uncertain contracts.”

Professor Sovero and Amanda Griffith, an associate professor of economics at Wake Forest University, began their work aiming to affirm the likely result of two well-known phenomena: the tendency among short-term teaching staff to grade more leniently and the tendency of students to give female instructors worse ratings.

For their investigation into those combined effects, Professors Sovero and Griffith found a major US research university willing to share the necessary data on condition that it was not identified.

From that university’s records of more than 170,000 course enrolments between 1994 and 2005, the Sovero-Griffith team found the proportion of A grades increased slightly among male instructors as their contract status moved from uncertainty toward tenured positions. But the opposite was found among female faculty, with the proportions of A grades decreasing and C grades increasing with higher levels of contract certainty.

Broad interpretations of that finding seem legitimate, despite some potential limiting factors including the use of a single university, the authors said. The institution in this case, Professor Sovero said, appears representative of many research-intensive universities, including its general prioritisation of research over teaching.

The findings help demonstrate the need for universities to take steps that may have been pointed out to them in the past, she said, including giving their instructors longer-term contracts and trying to reduce bias in student evaluations of teachers.

Some steps for reducing gender-based bias in teacher evaluations are as simple as telling students to be aware of that possibility in their thinking, Professor Sovero said.

The study also reflects a growing willingness among universities to participate in such research − often on the condition of anonymity − to help improve their operations, Professor Sovero added.

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