Some faculty concerned over bias against female professors’ SPOT evaluations

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Male faculty sometimes have higher teaching evaluations than their female peers, but researchers and some TCU faculty said this might be a sign of unconscious bias on the part of students rather than consistently better teaching.

According to a 2017 Chronicle of Higher Education article, most people have biases they’re unaware of that are caused partially by “repeated exposure to stereotypes.” Tackling these biases typically requires addressing their influence.

Students are more likely to perceive male professors as “brilliant, awesome, and knowledgeable,” but female professors with similar teaching styles are more likely to be considered “bossy and annoying,” according to a study by Innovative Higher Education cited in a Chronicle Data article.

SPOTs, or student perceptions of teaching, are sent to students at the end of each semester. This year’s evaluations will be sent out April 18 and will close May 6.

According to David Grant, a religion professor and the chair of the university evaluation committee that reviews the SPOT survey methods and response rates, administrators can use the student evaluations to review faculty performance. Grant said he was a department chair for six years and used the student reviews to evaluate faculty teaching effectiveness.

Kat Barger, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy, said at the March Faculty Senate that male faculty receive higher SPOT evaluations than female faculty. She said bias causes these disparities.

According to a research paper published by Science Open in 2016, gender bias in student evaluations of teachers can cause less effective faculty to get higher scores than more effective faculty of the opposite gender.

Barger said in an interview her SPOTs are lower than she expects based on her efforts. She also said the bias in her SPOTs starts in the classroom. She said her students are more disrespectful toward her than her male colleagues.

“I have to tell students to put away their cell phones a lot more often,” she said. “I know that happens more often in my classes because I’ve had other faculty sit in on my class and observe.”

Other female faculty members said they’ve experienced a similar bias. Rhiannon Mayne, an associate professor of geology, said a student called her 21-year-old teaching assistant “doctor” and her “Mrs. Mayne– which is my mother.”

Grant said while SPOTs are considered in tenure and promotion, they’re only one factor in the decision. Barger, who is on the Faculty Senate Educational Curriculum Committee, said the committee has set a guideline that SPOTs should only account for one-third of a faculty member’s teaching evaluations. She also said the people doing faculty reviews should be aware of the potential for bias.

Karen Nelson, an accounting professor, said the university should discuss bias with students during orientation to help them become more aware. She said it’s better to address these issues now in a learning environment.

“This is part of becoming a professional,” she said. “When you have a job, you have to evaluate people. You will have to address these issues, and it’s just best to understand and address your frame of mind.”