The Unfairness of Measuring Teaching Performance – Revisited

A women of a minority group teaching at a whiteboard
A survey of student evaluations of teaching shows that men rate higher.

Last year I posted an article on The Unfairness of Measuring Teaching Performance concerning anonymous student comments that said that the teacher was “too old” [1]. An article¬†published on the online site Phys.org [2] found that male teachers were most likely to be evaluated the highest by students and female teachers from a non-English background the lowest. Further, the bias showed up most in student surveys in Science and Business and was largely absent from students surveys from Engineering and other disciplines.

This study was based upon 500,000 student surveys of teaching at the University of NSW, Sydney between 2010 and 2016. It involved more than 3000 teachers over 2000 courses. across 5 Faculties.

In my previous article, I strongly supported teaching surveys as a tool for professional teacher development using tailored questions that are teacher selectable. It was my belief that problems arise because of

… the impersonal nature of the survey, as well as the fact that it is exclusively university, administered, that is the heart of the problem.

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The Unfairness of Measuring Teaching Performance

I write this in response to an article in the Brisbane Times online today: “‘This woman is so old’: Insults hurled at academics spur survey rethink” by Henrietta Cook. This comment posted in anonymous student feedback to Sydney academic Dr. Teena Clerke. These surveys are used by universities to measure the quality of teaching in its programs.

There is no question that universities need to maintain quality teaching but there is a problem with teachers being subjected to abuse under any guise as pointed out in the cited article above. What’s more, such measures are increasingly being used to judge not only the quality of university teaching programs but also the performance of teachers and to help decide questions of whether a given academic should be re-hired, promoted or fired.

While most institutions try to take a balanced view of survey data, in regard to staff management, it potentially opens a pandora’s box of for abusive behavior, gender and racial discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment to be perpetrated by pernicious managers and supervisors (or even students against teachers). So we need assurances that the benefits of such schemes outweigh the potential risks for abuse, however isolated and infrequent such instances might be.

The recent book “The Tyranny of Metrics” by academic Jerry Muller (2018) handles these issues in a more comprehensive manner than I can do here. What I have seen over my 28 years in academia is that teaching evaluation started out as a survey consisting of 10, or so, questions plus room for comments. They were handled by teachers on a class-by-class basis and returned in a sealed envelope to the university by an appointed student.

Typically, the academic could select one or more of the survey questions from a suite of optional questions, in addition, to standardized questions. I illustrate this with my own SET (student evaluation of teaching) results from October 1998 and the Insight evaluation report from June 2015, from the same institution and from the same unit of teaching, Instrumental Analysis:

The evaluation instrument on the LHS above is for October 1998 and on the RHS for June 2015. Click on the thumbnail to enlarge the image.

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