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How to Combat Gender Bias in Teacher Evaluations

New research suggests that simply reminding students about the reality of implicit bias can help them avoid it.
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For teachers in the early stages of their academic careers, student evaluations are a big deal. As a study published last year noted, the scores they receive "are often part of hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions."

The same study also found strong evidence that these scores are driven in part by prejudice. "Women receive systematically lower teaching evaluations than their male colleagues," it concludes.

A new study provides evidence that this unfair treatment can be largely corrected by a simple statement. It found that the evaluations of two female instructors were far more positive if students were first reminded about the reality of gender bias.

"We were surprised to see a simple intervention have such a strong effect," lead author David Peterson, a political scientist at Iowa State University, said in announcing the findings. "It really is just one tool, but the results emphasize the need to talk about gender bias more broadly as we consider changes to how we evaluate teaching."

The study, published in the online journal PLoS One, featured four large classes taught at Iowa State in the spring of 2018: two "Introduction to Biology" and two "Introduction to American Politics" courses. One section of each was taught by a white man, while the other was taught by a white woman.

For the post-course teacher evaluations, which was completed online, students randomly received either the standard survey for the department, or a modified one. The latter noted that "student evaluations of teaching are often influenced by students' unconscious and unintentional biases," and that "women and instructors of color are systematically rated lower in their teaching evaluations than white men." The note closed by asking students to focus on "the content of the course" and to "make an effort to resist stereotypes about the professors."

"For female faculty, the treatment has a significant positive effect on the evaluations of the overall rating of the instructor, and the overall rating of the course," the researchers report. In contrast, the note had no significant impact on the evaluation of male instructors.

"These effects were consistent across two different introductory courses" and were "substantial in magnitude—as much as half a point on a five-point scale," they add.

Further analysis found that, for female students, reading the gender-bias statement "had no effect on their evaluations of the female faculty." That suggests the new, more equitable outcomes were driven by increased self-awareness of male students (although that will need to be confirmed in larger studies).

The researchers concede that they are "somewhat uncertain about the broad applicability of these results." They note that, if their gender-bias reminder becomes part of the standard evaluation form, its impact could be dulled by repetition, leading it to grow less effective with time.

Nevertheless, this study appears to be a welcome example of a group of people who reacted to a reminder of their unconscious prejudices by taking the news to heart and judging people more fairly.