Unconscious Bias and Teaching Evaluations: Starting a conversation

Unconscious Bias and Teaching Evaluations: Starting a conversation

Joanna Carter, Academic Data Manager, Teaching Excellence Academy

In the Academy Great Debates Joanna Carter and Jenny Lawrence posed the question “how can we as a learning community address unconscious bias in teaching evaluations?” 

By definition, unconscious bias happens outside of our control and causes us to make judgments about people and situations that are influenced by our backgrounds and experiences without our reasoning minds recognising this has happened. Implicit bias questions the level to which these biases are unconscious. Once we acknowledge our biases we should find ways to mitigate their impact (Equality Challenge Unit, 2013).

We know that the notion of unconscious bias in the context of teaching evaluations is a concern amongst colleagues at the University of Hull; they told us this in a staff Module Evaluation Questionnaire (MEQ) survey in summer 2019. Research by Boring and Stark (2016) tells us that “student evaluations of teaching (SET) are biased against female instructors”, “SET of instructors of colour appear to be biased downward” and that bias shapes student expectations of a teacher’s practice, for example students expect more engaged pastoral support from a female tutor than male. Problematically “bias varies by discipline and by student gender, among other things” and cannot be adjusted for “because it depends on so many factors”.

Criado Perez’s work ‘Invisible Women’ (2019), places a critical lens on “systematically biased” teaching evaluations and cites examples of student beliefs about the attributes of male and female academics. She has coined the term ‘brilliance bias’ to describe how “male professors are routinely considered more knowledgeable more objective, more innately talented”. She discusses how “we teach ‘brilliance bias’ to children from an early age” for example decades of ‘draw a scientist’ studies showing a recent improvement “where in the 1960s only 1% of children drew female scientists, 28% do now” but this is “still far off reality”. Whilst this not only leads to “students mis-evaluating their teachers or each other: there is also evidence that teachers are mis-evaluating their students”.

Flaherty (2019) discusses two studies that reinforce the bias debate including how “simple changes to the language used in SETs can make a positive impact in assessments of female professors” but how far this goes to actually address unconscious bias is given a caveat that the effects could reduce following widespread adoption due to students being “less likely to notice the language”.

Addressing unconscious bias, as richly discussed and considered during the debate, was agreed to be part of a wider project of consciousness raising; integral to “decolonising the curriculum”, widening participation and the University’s vision for a 'fairer, brighter carbon neutral future’.

The Academy’s recently produced “Think before you click” video is borne out of our increased research and discussion of this issue. The video is available to students when they complete their surveys via the University’s MyVoice platform. Resources to aid this consciousness raising are available across the sector, for example Plymouth University’s “7 Steps” (Muneer, Cotton and Winter, 2015) which encourages creating “an atmosphere of openness in discussing biases and best practice to minimise them”.

Students are sympathetic to this idea. They suggest a more nuanced approach to teaching evaluations, complimented by a mutual understanding of the complexity of our (staff and student) university lives would help navigate this complex issue (Lawrence, Wales, Hunt and Synmioe, in press).

This debate was the beginning of our conversation, which we hope to continue as we take a learning community approach to building our fairer, brighter future.

Listen here to a Panopto recording of the introduction to the debate on “Unconscious Bias and Teaching Evaluations: Starting a conversation”

Many thanks to those staff who took part in the debate and let’s keep the conversation going on @UoHAcademy #teamhull

Lawrence, J, Wales, H., Hunt, L. and Synmioe, D. (in press) Teaching excellence: the students perspective. French, A. Thomas, K. (forthcoming) The classed/ gendered and racialized implications of TEF: diversity deficits in Higher Education Evaluation. UK: Emerald Insights.


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