Racism and Sexism in Teaching Evaluations

In the world of academia, where the pursuit of knowledge and excellence in teaching are paramount, one might assume that evaluation methods would be impartial and objective. However, a thought-provoking article by David Delgado Shorter, a UCLA Professor of World Arts and Cultures, sheds light on the problematic nature of student evaluations. In his article titled “Teaching Evaluations Are Racist, Sexist, And Often Useless: It’s Time To Put These Flawed Measures In Their Place,” Shorter questions the validity and fairness of using student evaluations as a basis for academic merit and promotion decisions.

Shorter’s journey into this subject began when he reviewed his own teaching evaluations from the previous years, aiming to compile them for promotion purposes. What he found was a mixture of bizarre comments and personal narratives that had little to do with the actual course content. He realized that this was not an isolated incident; many of his Black and Asian colleagues, especially women, faced even more problematic evaluations.

These concerns prompted Shorter to delve into the research surrounding teaching evaluations. He discovered a wealth of peer-reviewed papers spanning decades, all pointing to the same disturbing trend: gender and racial biases in student evaluations. Women consistently received lower ratings than men, and younger women were often judged less professionally than their older counterparts. Women of color faced additional challenges, being rated as less effective than white women. These biases, based on gender, race, and even seemingly unrelated factors like the time of day a course was taught, raised serious questions about the validity of using student evaluations as a sole measure of teaching effectiveness.

The American Sociological Association (ASA) recognized these issues and recommended in 2019 that student evaluations should not be used as the sole basis for merit and promotion decisions unless part of a broader, more holistic assessment. Some universities, such as the University of Southern California, the University of Oregon, and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, have already taken steps to combine student evaluations with other forms of assessment in personnel decisions. The ASA’s stance has garnered support from nearly two dozen professional organizations.

The legal implications of relying solely on student evaluations are also a cause for concern. In a case at Ryerson University (now Toronto Metropolitan University) in 2009, an arbitrator, William Kaplan, acknowledged “serious and inherent limitations” of student evaluations, describing them as “imperfect at best and downright biased and unreliable at worst.” This raises the possibility of legal challenges if colleges continue to use these evaluations as the primary criterion for decision-making.

In response to these issues, Shorter’s own department at UCLA decided to prioritize fairness and reliability. They chose not to rely on student evaluations for job security and instead implemented a system that allowed faculty members to use peer-assessment and self-evaluation, with documented revisions to pedagogical statements. This approach aligns with the principle that academics should be assessed by their peers and experts in their respective fields rather than relying solely on student evaluations.

Losing Confidence in Higher Education

In recent times, America has been witnessing a seismic shift in the perception and value of higher education. Historically, a college degree had been regarded as a quintessential stepping stone to financial stability and a prosperous future. The early 2010s saw a high rate of affirmation from college graduates, with 86 percent considering their investment in college education to be worthwhile.[i]Additionally, 70 percent of high school graduates chose to pursue higher education directly after their graduation in 2009, showcasing the predominant belief in the benefits of a college education. The economic data around this time period significantly favored those with a bachelor’s degree, who were found to earn about two-thirds more than individuals with just a high school diploma. This earnings gap suggested that higher education could be a reliable pathway to greater financial security and prosperity.

Unfortunately, a stark contrast can be observed in recent years, as public sentiment regarding higher education has experienced a monumental shift. As of 2021, undergraduate enrollment figures plummeted to below 15.5 million, compared to over 18 million a decade earlier.[ii]Surveys conducted during this time reveal a staggering decline in the value attached to a college degree, with only 41 percent of young adults considering it very important, a dramatic decrease from the 74 percent recorded previously.[iii]  This waning confidence is mirrored in the diminishing trust towards higher education institutions, with only a third of the American populace expressing a high degree of faith in them.[iv] Continue reading “Losing Confidence in Higher Education”

The New Face of College

As the new academic year begins, the shifting demographics of undergraduates bear acknowledgment. Today’s students are navigating a profoundly altered landscape when it comes to higher education. Coming of age amidst shifting sands, they no longer view
college as a mere rite of passage into adulthood, a perception held by many in previous generations. Instead, higher education has emerged as a perceived bulwark against an unstable future, a necessary tool to secure a foothold in an increasingly competitive market. Armed with a critical eye and a deep-seated desire for value in their educational investment, these students are willing to devote the time and effort necessary to achieve grades that promise to pave a promising pathway into the workforce or further studies, viewing each step as a vital cog in the machinery of their future success.

The metamorphosis in the racial and ethnic composition of American higher education institutions is indeed noteworthy. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, there has been a discernible increase in the enrollment rates of several minority groups. In the fall of 2019, it was noted that the proportion of white students enrolled in colleges was around 55.9%, while Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander students represented 20.1% and 7.4% of enrollments, respectively.[1] Furthermore, the number of African American students enrolling has also seen an incremental rise, accounting for 13.2% in the same year. These developments illustrate a promising trajectory towards fostering a more inclusive and diverse educational environment. The progressive shift not only indicates a break from a predominantly white majority but also hints at an enriching academic milieu where perspectives from various backgrounds can converge. This diversification is a cornerstone in preparing students to navigate a globally interconnected world, where understanding and appreciation for diverse cultures and narratives is a critical asset. Continue reading “The New Face of College”

“The Instruction Myth” Revisited

In the vast landscape academia, one constant lingers. The venerated lecture is an historical artifact that traces its origins to the very inception of higher learning. Such a tradition, efficient as it might be for transmitting facts, often falls short in sparking genuine engagement. A growing body of evidence-based research shows that this is arguably the least effective way to generate learning, especially in our digitally charged era where learning has undergone a dramatic metamorphosis.

Our digital age hasn’t just redefined how we retrieve information, but reshaped our very expectations of learning. The omnipresence of online tools and multifaceted communication avenues heralds a marked shift in pedagogy. Brick-and-mortar classrooms, once the sole sanctums of knowledge, are being complemented by, if not at times replaced by, vibrant alternative modalities.

As John Tagg insightfully noted in his now- classic The Instruction Myth: Why Higher Education is Hard to Change, And How to Change It (Rutgers, 2019), established education structures can unwittingly ensnare itself in a misguided “universal solution” mindset. They risk glossing over the rich potentials of diverse learners, their individualized backgrounds, and inclinations. In this milieu, learning that foregrounds students’ individual aptitudes emerges as a promising way forward. Such adaptive approaches beckon a richer, more encompassing educational horizon. Continue reading ““The Instruction Myth” Revisited”

Welcome to Cyberschool

While technology always has played a role in education , it went into hyperdrive with the pandemic-driven move to online learning. Up to this point, economic pressures and growing student numbers already were causing a panic in education. Schools were struggling to trim budgets as “accountability” scrutinized everyone. These extant conditions presented an upside to some of the changes that would occur.  Most dramatically, the shift to doing schoolwork at home eliminated shortfalls in classroom space and, at least temporarily, student housing as well. As the pandemic continued the share of higher education offered online jumped from 10 percent in 2019 to 33 percent a few years later.[i]  But as everyone now knows, so-called “distance learning” isn’t for everyone and doesn’t work for all kinds of material.  Research shows that one-size-fits-all character of mechanical course delivery disadvantages students of many kinds.

Online schooling isn’t as new as you might think. The idea of distance learning dates to vocational and self-improvement correspondence courses of the eighteenth century, which arose with improvements  in mail delivery systems. Often cited as an early example was a shorthand course offered by Caleb Phillips, advertised in a 1721 edition of Boston Gazette with claims that “students may by having several lessons sent weekly to them, be as perfectly instructed as those that live in Boston.”[ii] By the 1800s all manner of vocational skills were being taught by mail, as well hobbies like drawing and painting. The University of London became the first college to offer distance learning degrees in 1858. By the end of the century, learning by mail had become big business for institutions like the Pennsylvania-based International Correspondence Schools (ICS). In the decade between 1895 and 1905, ICS grew from 72,000 to 900,000 students signing up to learn technical and management skills.[iii] Much of this growth was due to the innovation of sending entire textbooks rather than single lessons, along with promotion by a large in-person sales team. Continue reading “Welcome to Cyberschool”

The Problem with Rigor

“It’s Time to Cancel the Word Rigor,” read a recent headline in education press.[1]  The article detailed growing concerns about hidden bias within what many see as conventional teaching practices. Here, “rigor” was taken to task for throwing roadblocks up for some students more than others, even as its exact meaning remains vague. Webster’s Dictionary defines rigor as “severity, strictness or austerity,” which educators often translate into difficult courses and large amounts of work, rationalized in the interest of excellence and high standards.[2]

While there is nothing wrong with challenging coursework, per se, this interpretation of rigor often becomes a recipe for failure for otherwise intelligent and hardworking students.  Such failures can result when rigor is used to incentivize or stratify students, as in gateway or “weed out” courses with prescribed grading targets, or situations where faculty overuse tests as motivation. Rigor discussions I have witnessed rarely consider instructional quality, teaching effectiveness, or principles of learning. Instead faculty complain about poor student attention, comprehension, or commitment. As the Chronicle explains, “all credit or blame falls on individual students, when often it is the academic system that creates the constructs, and it’s the system we should be questioning when it erects barriers for students to surmount or make them feel that they don’t belong.”[3] Continue reading “The Problem with Rigor”

The Algorithm Rejected Me

School is where most kids first become aware of what I call the  “update imperative.”  After all, education is a process continual improvement in a step-by-step process of knowledge acquisition and socialization. In this sense schooling represents much more than the beginning of education. For many kids it’s a time of moving from the familiarity of home into the larger world of other people, comparative judgement, and a system of tasks and rewards. Along the way, a package of attitudes and beliefs is silently conditioned: conformity to norms, obedience to authority, and the cost of failure. All of this is presented with a gradually intensifying pressure to succeed, rationalized as a rehearsal for adult life. Rarely are the ideological parameters of this “hidden curriculum” ever challenged, or even recognized. Much like work, American K-12 schools are driven largely by mandates of individual achievement and material accumulation.

By the time college applications are due, levels of anxiety can run out of control, given the role of degrees in long term earnings.  Many students start the admissions Hunger Games as early as middle school, plotting their chances, polishing their transcripts, and doing anything they can to get good grades. Everyone knows how admissions data now flows in an age in which students apply to an average of 10 schools each. Unsurprisingly perhaps, overall applications have increased by 22% in the past year alone.[i] And while the applicant side of this equation has been much publicized, what happens in the admissions office remains shrouded in mystery. Largely unknown are secret criteria driven by algorithms to determine things like likelihood to enroll or willingness to pay. Even less known are kinds of AI analytics used to monitor and grade students, sometimes making prejudicial judgements along the way. Continue reading “The Algorithm Rejected Me”

Why Professors Ignore the Science of Teaching

A recent article appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education explored the apparent reluctance of college and university professors to embrace the growing body of research about how students learn and what teaching methods work best. While many faculty simply cling to what has worked for them in the past, others feel overworked and unable the consider changing. In the meantime, an increasingly diverse student population experiences increasing inequity as a result.

Beth McMurtrie’s “Why the Science of Teaching is Often Ignored” opens with a discussion of a recent study by five Harvard University researchers who published some novel research. The group was trying to figure out why active learning, a form of teaching that has had measurable success, often dies a slow death in the classroom. They compared the effects of a traditional lecture with active learning, where students solve problems in small groups.

The results were not surprising; students who were taught in an active method performed better on standardized tests. The academic press praised the study for its clever design and its resonance with professors who had trouble with active learning. Yet despite being praised in some quarters, the study was criticized in others.

This mixed reaction reveals a central paradox of higher education, according to McMurtrie. Teaching and learning research has grown dramatically over the decades, encompassing thousands of experiments, journals, books, and programs to bring learning science  into classrooms. But a lot of faculty members haven’t read it, aren’t sure what to do with it, or are skeptical. Continue reading “Why Professors Ignore the Science of Teaching”

Turn-U-In : Treating Students as Suspects

It’s no secret that online learning has its problems, witnessed in the historic failure and drop-out rates resulting from thrown-together course overhauls in the early COVID months. Less widely reported has been another kind of failure owing to a loss faith in educational institutions and a widening trust gap between teachers and students.

Inherent school power inequities  have aggravated  antagonisms – now made even worse by a range of surveillance and security technologies. The distance in “distance learning” can create an atmosphere of alienation and distrust. When the in-person classroom is reduced to a screen image, teachers and students can seem more like abstractions than actual people.

This opens the door for all sorts of communication failures and misunderstandings, not to mention stereotyping and harm. The objectifying tendencies of media representations long have been associated distortions in the way individuals and groups view each other, whether in the marketing of products, sensationalizing news items, or spreading ideologies on social networks. When “Zoom school” does this, underlying beliefs and assumptions can overtake the reality of encounters, generating attitudes that destabilize the learning environment.

These problems have become especially evident in the panic about student dishonesty in online learning, as the absence of classroom proximity quickly escalated in into assumptions of cheating. Early in the 2020s a torrent of news reports warned of an “epidemic” of dishonesty in online learning, with some surveys showing over 90 percent educators believing cheating occurred more in distance education than in-person instruction.[i] New technologies often have stoked such fears, in this instance building on the distrust many faculty hold toward students, some of it racially inflected. [ii] Closer examination of the issue has revealed that much of the worry came from faculty with little direct knowledge of the digital classroom, online student behavior, and preventative techniques now commonly used.  Indeed more recent research has shown no significant differences between in-person and online academic integrity.[iii] Continue reading “Turn-U-In : Treating Students as Suspects”