Outliers in the academy: Exploring the relationship between student evaluations and faculty diversity

Aug 03, 2017

by Michele DiPietro
Executive Director, Faculty Development, Recognition, and the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning

This double bind is unfortunately far from unique and it is consistent with several research findings, all converging on the idea that faculty of color and other minorities, and particularly women, are often penalized by students on end-of-semester evaluations.

“I want to be observed in the classroom. I teach Tuesday-Thursday at 11am. When’s the earliest you can come? You will provide documentation after the observation, yes?” The business-like tone in which Dr. Andrea Jackson made her request brought up a red flag. Was she being sent here by her chair? Did she need the confidential memo as proof that she had visited the center? “Sure, no problem, that’s what I am here for. Let’s start at the beginning. Is there a specific issue you would like feedback on?” “Nope, just a regular observation. Honestly, I feel I have things under control, but it would be good to have confirmation. I will see you in class, have a good day.” Oy, a “confirmation” observation. 

On the appointed day, I walk in with my antennae up, ready to capture everything out of the ordinary. Instead, my preconceived notions are busted open by Andrea’s professionalism, clarity, and outright excellence. Her class on Cultural Diversity in Organizations is exemplary—well planned, with clear explanations, a realistic case study, a discussion with smooth flow which she steers masterfully to solidify the main points, compassion when challenging students on their antiquated ideas of gender and race in the workplace, constructive feedback, respectful and equitable involvement of the students, a solid conclusion as a lead into the homework assignment.

I convey all this to her in our debrief meeting, and I sense an immediate thawing. Andrea starts to open up. “Thank you so much, I really appreciate it. This will be so helpful when I go up for tenure this fall. I love teaching this course because many students have to face their own privilege and grow so much from the process. But some resist the idea and think I am forcing my beliefs on them. As a Black woman in academia, I am in a constant catch 22. If I don’t assert my authority, some students will challenge my expertise. But if I push too hard, I’m the angry Black woman with an agenda. A subgroup of students always punishes me in their course evaluations. Some come back years later to tell me they realize I was right, after some eye-opening experiences in the corporate world. It’s rewarding to see the seeds I planted blossom, but that doesn’t change my numbers on the form. I just wanted a counter narrative to that, but I didn’t want to bias you with this information upfront.”

This double bind is unfortunately far from unique and it is consistent with several research findings, all converging on the idea that faculty of color and other minorities, and particularly women, are often penalized by students on end-of-semester evaluations. 

For starters, learning scientists agree that teacher credibility is a prerequisite for effective instruction, but women and minority faculty often have their credibility called into question. African-American and Latino faculty routinely have their credentials and expertise questioned and their authority challenged (Stanley et al. 2003; McGowan 2001; Hendrix 1998). Asian-American instructors are perceived as less credible and even less intelligible than White instructors (Rubin 1998). Instructors perceived by students to be foreigners are rated as less intelligible, despite of their actual nationality (Smith et al 1992). Similarly, instructors marked by their accent, attire, religious markers, or mannerism as being outside the “threshold of foreignness” are rated as less intelligible (Rubin 2007).

This is particularly true in courses dealing with privilege, power, and oppression. In particular, LGBT instructors are perceived as less trustworthy when teaching about LGBT issues (Cesario & Crawford 2002). Students even go as far as stating they learned less from LGBT instructors (Russ et al. 2002).

And finally, several studies document bias in student evaluations. For instance, Hamermesh and Parker (2005) found that non-white and female faculty receive lower evaluations (up to half a standard deviation lower) than their white male peers. In a study of online courses, women posing as men increased their evaluations and men posing as women received lower scores than usual (MacNell et al. 2015).  Hamermesh and Parker also found that non-native English speakers earn significantly lower evaluations than native speakers.

In my own research, I investigated predictors of ratings, and found that all the learning that students do in college (facts, theories, skills, problem solving, etc) are all positively correlated with course evaluations, with one exception. Courses that emphasize critical thinking, analysis, and evaluation from multiple points of view, are negatively correlated with course evaluations, despite the tremendous importance of those skills. Those are exactly the kind of skills necessary in courses addressing isms in society, and the professors who help students develop those skills pay a penalty (DiPietro & Fay 2005). What’s more, many students make decisions about professors on the very first day of class that are as rigid as they are unconscious. Ambady & Rosenthal (1993) found a correlation between professor evaluations at the end of the semester and of the same professors after half a minute on the first day of class.

Administrators and those involved in the Promotion and Tenure process should educate themselves about these issues in order to contextualize the numbers and comments they see. Professors, for their part, can be proactive by shaping their own narrative. Dr. Jackson (now a tenured full professor) took action by working with the Center to document her effectiveness and by referencing some of the aforementioned research to make a strong case for herself in her tenure documentation. CETL’s consultation philosophy is governed by the three Cs. Our Consultations are Collaborative, Confidential, and Constructive. We always document our joint work with confidential memos, and we always highlight the instructor’s strengths as well as offer suggestions for improvement. If you are interested in arranging a consultation or classroom observation, please do not hesitate to contact us.



Ambady, N. & Rosenthal, R. (1993).  Half a minute: Predicting teacher evaluations from thin slices of nonverbal behavior and physical attractiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 431-441.

Cesario, J., & Crawford, I. (2002) The effect of homosexuality on perceptions of persuasiveness and trustworthiness. Journal of Homosexuality, 43(2), 93-110.

DiPietro, M., & Fay. A. (2005) Online student-ratings-of-instruction (SRI) mechanisms for maximal feedback to instructors. Paper presented at the 30th POD Network in Higher Education annual meeting, Milwaukee, WI.

Hamermesh, D., & Parker, A (2005) Beauty in the Classroom: Instructors' Pulchritude and Putative Pedagogical Productivity. Economics of Education Review, 24(4), 369-76.

Hendrix, K. G. (1998).  Student perceptions of the influence of race on professor credibility.  Journal of Black Studies, 28, 738-764.

MacNell, L., Driscoll, A., & Hunt, A. (2015) What’s in a Name: Exposing Gender Bias in Student Ratings of Teaching. Innovative Higher Education, 40(4), 291-303.

McGowan, J. (2000, Winter). Multicultural teaching: African-American faculty classroom teaching experiences in predominantly white colleges and universities. Multicultural Education, 8(2), 19-22.

Rubin, D. L. (1998).  Help!  My professor (or doctor or boss) doesn’t talk English. In J. N. Martin, T. K. Nakayama, L. A. Flores (Eds.) Readings in Cultural Contexts (pp. 149 – 160). Mountain View, CA:  Mayfield Publishing Company.

Rubin, D. (2007). World Englishes meet the students-as-consumer in the contact zone. Paper presented at the annual meeting of TESOL, Seattle.

Russ, T. L., Simonds, C. J., & Hunt, S. K.  (2002).  Coming out in the classroom…An occupational hazard?:  The influence of sexual orientation on teacher credibility and perceived student learning. Communication Education, 51, 311 – 324.  

Smith, R., Byrd, P., Nelson, G., Barrett, R., & Constantinides, J. (1992). Crossing pedagogical oceans: International teaching assistants in U.S. undergraduate education (ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, Vol. 21, No. 8). Washington, D.C.: George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.

Stanley, C., Porter, M. E., Simpson, N., & Ouellett, M. (2003) A case study of the teaching experiences of African American faculty at two predominantly white research universities. Journal of Excellence in college teaching, 14(1), 151-178.