What exactly are we measuring?

We rely on Student Evaluations of Teaching (SETs) for a lot as instructors. They are a tool for measuring ourselves. They can provide valuable feedback for course design and content. They are a part of the puzzle when evaluating our peers. They also measure gender bias.

Wait! What was that last one?

Inside Higher Ed reported on new research into SETs concluding “evaluations are biased against female instructor in particular in so many ways that adjusting them for bias is impossible.” It comes as a surprise to no one that SETs are not always an effective tool. I used to teach a class of 500 and committed myself to reading every written comment and making changes as a result, but how seriously could I take them when students were frequently confused about whether they were evaluating me or a graduate student teaching one of the sections?

However, this recent study is different than student confusion or that offhanded comment in your evaluations, it points to systematic discrimination in one of our only standardized tools for measuring our work. This is a significant issue for higher education everywhere, but we tend to gravitate towards the immediate question of: What do we do about it? I am short on answers, but I have some suggestions.

  1. We are researchers, so let’s devote some of our time to learning more about this issue through the work of others (see this previous study to start) and our own investigations. The primary study was co-authored by an Associate Dean of Mathematics and Statistics and a postdoctoral researcher in Economics. The authorship speaks volumes about the reach of this issue and the diversity of people in a position to study it.
  2. If you are on a personnel committee of any sort it is time to have a conversation. The FPPP includes some strong language that SETs “shall be used, but will not weigh excessively in the overall evaluation of instructional effectiveness.” It is time to have some explicit conversations about what this means and how new information about SETs might inform future decisions.

Just a final reminder to come to the working lunch on Wednesday 12-3 in Colusa 100A to complete a Chancellor’s Office course redesign proposal. The funding package is generous at up $20,000 and the application is easy. This is a working lunch, not a series of presentations. Bring a laptop or pen and paper, leave with a completed application.

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