Citing Bias, Faculty Adopt New Course Evaluation Policy

Rather than presenting student perspectives to tenure committees, professors will write their own narratives.

By Kaitlin Liebling | Staff Writer
October 29, 2020
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Lily Cunningham filling out a course evaluation. Photo: Katie Wilcox.

The committee charged with making recommendations for the tenure and promotion of Wheaton faculty members will no longer review students’ course evaluations in their decision-making process, according to a new policy adopted by the faculty this fall. The Faculty Personnel Committee, a cross-disciplinary group that governs tenure and promotion policy, cited as the reason for the change research that suggests student evaluations are biased against female professors and professors of color.

 

“We’ve had a lot of discussion among the faculty over the years about the really strong evidence that what is measured by those student feedback surveys does not correlate with teaching excellence,” said Associate Professor of physics Heather Whitney. “In fact, it correlates more with gender and race of faculty members than anything else.”

 

Previously, anonymous student evaluations were reviewed to incorporate student perspectives into the college’s tenure decisions. Members of FPC, the provost, the president and the board of trustees would review one year’s worth of evaluations to assess student feedback on a professor’s courses. Departmental colleagues have typically also received access to the evaluations to inform their letters of recommendation written on behalf of fellow professors during the tenure approval process.

 

The new policy instead requires the faculty member applying for tenure to write a narrative summarizing their student evaluations annually, including the ways they will address students’ concerns in future classes. The chair of the professor’s department and the dean will be the only people permitted to read the actual evaluations in the new tenure process, while the FPC, provost, department colleagues, the president and the board will only review the narratives. 

 

The Faculty Development Committee — which is a separate entity from the FPC —  compiled research from outside studies about bias in student evaluations and presented their findings to the FPC last year. Associate Professor of anthropology Christine Jeske, a member of the development committee at the time and its current chair, said the new policy represents a crucial step in addressing bias and helps alleviate the unnecessary anxiety that faculty members can feel about student evaluations. 

 

“I am excited and passionate about this project because student evaluations are a cause of a lot of stress, particularly for new faculty, women and faculty of color. If we care about retention [of these faculty members], this is a really important step in making Wheaton an inclusive place to teach,” she said. 

 

Provost and professor of English Karen Lee suggested the narratives will be useful because they require faculty members to reflect on student feedback and make a plan to improve for the future. 

 

“The new policy is aimed to empower the role of student feedback by requiring our faculty members to review and respond to their data each year,” Lee wrote in an email to the Record.  

“Under the old system, this was not required —  a faculty member could possibly disregard the data unless a department chair brought it to his or her attention.”

Professor of anthropology Brian Howell said the easy-to-read narratives provided to the FPC will encompass more years of teaching than would be possible with hundreds of individual student evaluations. 

 

“[The FPC] could look at six or seven years of these summaries and actually see how this faculty member is taking seriously the feedback that they’re getting from students,” he said. In the past, the FPC only considered one year’s worth of raw evaluations in tenure deliberations.

 

Howell also noted that according to the majority of outside research on student evaluations, factors like whether a student expects a bad grade in the class or how a professor frames the evaluation process can “easily influence” the response forms. According to him, research has shown that even the accent or the physical appearance of a professor may have an unfair impact on how students write their evaluations.

 

Course evaluations are just one component of the tenure and promotion review process, in which FPC assesses faculty members’ effectiveness in teaching, scholarship, service to the college, and student mentorship. The recommendations of colleagues and previous awards and promotions are also taken into consideration. To receive tenure at Wheaton, professors must also complete a paper that integrates faith and learning.

 

While critics of the new course-evaluation policy share the concern of bias against female faculty and faculty of color, they worry that the new system creates problems of its own.

 

“What could be more biased than one’s own assessment of one’s own teaching? What are the chances the professor is going to say ‘these students were right, I really failed to deliver?’” asked Business and Economics Chair Jason Long

 

Although Long agrees that the summaries will help faculty reflect on their teaching, he said that the new narratives should supplement, rather than replace, the actual student evaluations. According to Long, everything that goes into a tenure decision —  including outside letters about the quality of a professor’s scholarship and the peer and chair evaluations — are what he terms “imperfect signals.” 

 

“I have no doubt it’s likely that women and minorities experience bias in their evaluations at Wheaton College, but the job of FPC is to take all of these noisy signals and try to discern the truth from them,” he said. “Getting rid of all of that good information present in student evaluations is an overreaction.”

 

Associate Professor of Economics Jeremy Cook suggests that a variety of faculty members, including department colleagues and the members of the FPC, and not only the chair and the dean, should read student evaluations in the tenure selection process

 

“These data may contain useful information, such as specific student concerns, that could easily be missed if data are merely summarized by two or three people,” he said. “The challenge for faculty is to interpret student evaluations appropriately, in light of potential biases, instead of constraining the access to a few individuals.”

 

The Record asked several students about their attitudes toward course evaluations. 

 

A junior AHS major said, “Usually, I don’t feel like I need to do them unless I’m really invested in the class, felt like it was an amazing class or prof, or feel like the class didn’t go as well as it could have.” A sophomore math major reported that unless she feels strongly about a class one way or another, “I mostly click through.” 

 

Another junior AHS major said she always fills out course evaluations. While she defined her attitude toward the exercise as “usually half-hearted,” she said her priority is to summarize the course experience objectively, rather than base it off her feelings about the class or professor. “Even if I like a disorganized prof a lot, I’m going to say they’re disorganized.” 

 

However some concerned students highlighted the fact that Student Government wasn’t informed of the decision until a month or two ago, with the majority of the student body still unaware of the new policy. 

 

“I think something that so directly impacts the voice of the students should have been communicated to us sooner,” said senior math and economics major Donovan Gleeson.

 

“The one recipient of the education given by the professor is the student,” Gleeson explained. “We’re the only people who actually see the course from start to finish and spend every minute with the professor in class. Suppressing that perspective is at best unnecessary and at worst risks losing our voice in the professor evaluation process. Biased data is not unusable data; you just need to account for those biases.”

 

SG’s Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Mason Laney declined the Record’s request for comment on the policy change.

Wheaton College, IL

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