Do you remember the first day of class in college courses? You walked into class, sat down, and as your professor was going over the syllabus you made guesses as to how enjoyable you would find the class and what kind of grade you would receive, all while assessing your professor. By the end of the semester you would have your answers, have gotten to know your professor, and received a grade. And, along with your grade, you would also have received a survey.

These surveys, known as teaching evaluations, are opinion surveys given to students about their courses and professors at the end of each university-level course. Students sometimes see them as a place to vent and release feelings of frustration built up over the semester. Administrators (the Department Chairs and Deans evaluating faculty) see them as an indication of "teaching effectiveness" whereby they rate the faculty's performance.

The professors themselves have mixed feelings. Sometimes the students offer praise or constructive feedback ("I wish we had more homework problems"). Many times, however, the comments are personal and hurtful or the criticism is vague ("I dislike their teaching style"). That kind of feedback is not constructive for improvement.

Since the inception of these evaluations of teaching, there has been much research done to see how useful these tools are, and what really drives a good professor evaluation (easy grader? interesting subject?). One thing that has unfortunately stuck out is this: women get worse evaluations than male professors. While it is possible but unlikely that all women professors are worse teachers than their male peers, most researchers believe some type of bias is driving this result. There are many theories as to why female professors get lower scores— discrimination, role incongruity, or perhaps expectations for women and men are different in a professor role.

Although a lot of research has looked at how students are evaluating their professors at the end of the semester once the class is over, few people have considered whether this discrimination against women is present from the onset of the semester and, if not, what during the semester might make those first impressions change.

As three female professors at different universities across the US, my coauthors and I took these questions very seriously and set out to look at how modern students react to their male and female professors, both in first impressions and after receiving a grade from them.

We examined teaching evaluations from the same students multiple times in the semester. It is also one of the only studies to look at student reactions before the final exam is given. We were curious to see if gender bias is present at the beginning of a course. Presumably, modern-day students no longer think it odd to be taught at the university level by a female and have more egalitarian views of different genders. In fact, given that students expect their female professors to be more kind, caring, and approachable than male professors, it could be argued that females might get higher ratings at the very beginning of the semester than men. 

However, if female professors are considered to have these more gracious and caring qualities, getting poor grades from female professors might sting more. Students may experience a sense of loss as their high expectations for kindness (which may be conflated with expectations of high marks) fail to be met. We all three believed, anecdotally, that our own students seemed to take feedback harshly and so we wanted to gather data to find out if male professors were experiencing the same.

To look at first impressions, and how these expectations can change after receiving a grade, over 2,100 students in our own universities and others across the country were surveyed on the second day of Principles of Economics class and on the day of class in which they received their first exam grade. Each student rated their professor on how knowledgeable, challenging, interesting, approachable, and caring they were. Students also stated whether they would recommend the instructor and the course to others.

On the second day of class, students were already showing bias in their responses, rating females lower on knowledgeability, ability to engage interest, ability to challenge students, and reasonableness. Fewer students were willing to recommend female professors or courses taught by females. This is even though at the first impression, females were being regarded as more approachable and caring. The economics courses in which these surveys were given may have contributed to this result. Economics is widely regarded as a subject geared to males. It is also one that lags behind other STEM fields in terms of gender equality where only 30% of PhDs are awarded to females.

After grades were returned the surveys showed females were rated lower than their male professor peers on every aspect surveyed. When the first survey was compared to the second, female professors decreased in ratings as the semester wore on and students had received a grade from the professor. In comparison, male faculty rose in favorability on every single trait measured!

How can this be explained? The first thing to consider is whether female faculty are harsher graders. There were no meaningful differences in the grades given between genders, and the populations taught by male and female faculty were comparable. This pattern helps give insight into what is driving gender bias in teaching evaluations. It may be that positive expectations about approachability and empathy lead students to be more likely to react with lower ratings after feedback from female professors.

What about the student's gender? You might be surprised to learn that student gender had no impact on evaluations. The largest indicators, other than professor gender, were expected grade in the course and interest in the subject taught.

The real question is how to fix this issue of bias in evaluations. My co-authors and I hoped to see bias not emerge until later in the semester. If that were the case, we would be able to offer a direct policy prescriptive: survey students earlier in the semester to reduce or eliminate bias. Unfortunately, we are left without a concrete prescription for change. In this case, administrators and evaluators must consider gender bias as a possibility when evaluating faculty and draw on as many indications of teaching effectiveness as possible.

For Further Reading

Buser, W., Batz-Barbarich, C. L., & Hayter, J. K. (2022). Evaluation of women in economics: Evidence of gender bias following behavioral role violations. Sex Roles86(11), 695-710.

Whitney Buser is an Academic Professional and Associate Director of Academic Programs in the School of Economics at Georgia Tech. Dr. Buser has published and presented research on gender differences in financial literacy, performance evaluation, confidence in mathematical abilities, and participation in academic discussions. Further research interests include behavioral economics as well as formal and informal institutional impacts on policy and economic well-being.