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College students' assessments of their instructors' teaching ability is linked to whether they think those instructors are male or female, according to new research from North Carolina State University.

In the study, students in an online course gave better evaluations to the instructors they thought were male, even though the two instructors – one male and one female – had switched their identities. The research is based on a small pilot study of one class. 

Student evaluations can carry a lot of weight in decisions about promotions, tenure and pay raises. But the findings demonstrate that gender bias can have a big impact on student ratings of teachers, according to the study.

To conduct the study, researchers compared instructor evaluations of four discussion groups in a technology and society class within the sociology and anthropology department at North Carolina State. Two groups were taught by a female instructor and two were taught by a male instructor. Students in one of the female instructor’s groups were told their instructor was male, and vice versa.

Neither the actual male nor actual female instructor received significantly higher ratings. But the same instructors received different ratings when they "switched" genders. The male instructor had lower ratings when students were told their instructor was female. The female instructor had higher ratings when students were told their instructor was male.

The authors say that their findings suggest a female instructor would have to work harder than a male to receive comparable ratings. The study was published this month in the journal Innovative Higher Education.

The lead author, Lillian MacNell, said personal experience encouraged her to conduct the study. (The co-authors are Adam Driscoll, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and Andrea Hunt, an assistant professor at the University of North Alabama. Driscoll and Hunt earned their Ph.D.s from N.C. State.)

MacNell, a doctoral student at North Carolina State, was grading for an online course and often received emails from students challenging her decisions. They complained about her grading, and in some cases, went over her head and emailed the professor directly.

She vented to a male colleague who was also grading for the course, saying that it was frustrating how much students were protesting her decisions.

“He said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He hadn’t received anything.”

Both MacNell and the male colleague were using the same language and rubric to grade students, she said, so there was no reason why students should be accepting his decisions but not hers. 

The study cites previous research that has found gender bias in students' evaluations of articles -- identical articles were ranked higher if they had male names -- and in students' judgment of faculty qualifications -- male candidates were judged as more qualified despite identical credentials.

In teaching evaluations, previous studies have focused on how female instructors are expected to be nurturing and supportive; when they’re not, it may count against them in evaluations. At the same time, if they are nurturing and supportive, female instructors risk being perceived as less authoritative and knowledgeable than their male counterparts, according to the study.

But it's difficult when evaluating teaching to isolate the instructor's gender from other factors that influence class instruction, such as teaching style. So while previous research has revealed differences between instructor evaluations for each gender, it hasn't determined whether those differences were the result of gender bias, according to the authors.

That’s where online education comes in. Unlike those doing research on face-to-face instruction, researchers in this study were able to hide the gender of the instructors, and to keep equal all the teaching components, such as grading standards and the speed of responses.

When comparing the evaluations of the perceived gender identities, the male identity received higher scores across all 12 variables students evaluated. In six variables -- professionalism, promptness, fairness, respectfulness, enthusiasm and giving praise -- the differences were statistically significant.

In promptness, for example, the instructors matched their grading schedules so that students in all groups received feedback at about the same rate. The instructor whom students thought was male was graded a 4.35 out of 5 for promptness, while the instructor perceived to be female received a 3.55.

With just 43 subjects, this study was a pilot; the authors plan to expand their research with more classes and different types of courses. Still, higher education administrators should be aware of the findings when using evaluations to make faculty decisions, since evaluations could reflect a gender bias rather than an actual difference in teaching abilities, MacNell said. 


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