Faculty members are trying to change course evaluations to better assess how student learning is gauged because studies show discrimination skews the results.

Part of course evaluations that rely on student input are frequently referred to as student evaluations of teaching (SET). The results of SET, which are intended to evaluate the effectiveness of a faculty member’s teaching, are critical in determining which faculty members receive tenure and pay raises.

But academic studies show trends of discrimination within the course evaluations based upon factors such as faculty members’ physical features, gender and race.  

After becoming aware of the studies, economics professor and Faculty Senate President Bill Harbaugh sponsored legislation designed to reevaluate SET and course evaluations at the university.

“People who are prettier or handsomer get better course evaluations,” Harbaugh said, “and taller men, white men get better course evaluations. That suggests that unless you believe those types of people are better teachers, then yes, there is discrimination in teaching evaluations.”

Economics professor and Senate President Bill Harbaugh (Samuel Marshall/Emerald)

In May, the Senate approved the creation of a Teaching Evaluation Task Force designed to evaluate, revise and improve the university’s current course evaluation system through a series of experiments over the next year.

In addition to reducing bias against faculty members, the new course evaluations will work to accurately gauge how much students learned during the class.

The Task Force’s chair, Professor Sierra Dawson, said she wants to examine the question of how teaching effectiveness should be measured. She said that it would be beneficial to keep the current methods of teaching evaluation; however, it is necessary to critique them so they produce the most accurate and honest results.

Teaching effectiveness is currently measured in three ways: student input from course evaluations (SET), peer review from other faculty members and a faculty member’s presentation of their own methods.

But Dr. Lee Rumbarger, Director of the Teaching Engagement Program at UO, said the current system for student evaluations of teaching does not necessarily assess student learning.

Course Evaluations icon in Duckweb. (Picture from Duckweb)

“There’s one study where students who did better in follow-up courses actually gave lower scores to the initial class. In other words, despite learning more, something about the difficulty or nature of the class made students score it lower” Rumbarger said.

She said the bias creates substantial problems due to the fact that professors who teach effectively are rated poorly by students.

Rumbarger will work within the task force to help faculty make changes to their teaching methods and give them the confidence to experiment with new ideas.

Also, the group plans to talk to students about the learning goals of the classes, the degree to which those goals were met and the strength of the faculty member’s methods.

Dawson said these changes are mutually beneficial for both students and faculty members in the long run.

Amanda Johnson, a freshman biology major, perceives course evaluations as useful tools for professors and students alike to judge their progress over the course of the term. “I think that the purpose of course evaluations is for professors to see how well they’re doing and to see their progress. You can also see how much you actually learned and the effectiveness of your study habits” she said.

Since the proposed changes to course evaluations are currently in the experimental phase, students should expect to see the changes roll out in the next few years.

“At the end of the day, students went to class to learn and the tool they should be offered helps them to give feedback about that learning and how effective it was.”


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