Course survey reforms aim to reduce gender, other bias in evaluation process

Tatiana Parafiniuk-Talesnick

(Photo courtesy
(Photo courtesy

As the end of each semester approaches, students are given the chance to provide feedback on their classes through course surveys – an opportunity that may be more powerful than previously thought.

“From the point of view of a student, the survey seems like some way for you to give feedback on how you perceived the course and evaluate the teaching, and I don’t think anyone questions that,” said Don Estep, a faculty council member and statistics professor. “But a lot of the decisions that are made regarding tenure and evaluation of faculty regarding their teaching on occasion comes down to their course surveys.”


Estep said that he does not believe course surveys were ever intended to be teacher evaluations, but were likely made so students could provide teachers with feedback. The surveys are currently used in promotion and tenure process, which can be problematic when personal biases are taken into consideration.

“There’s bias in surveys that have been known for decades, for example women, minorities and people who are not native English speakers, just get lower ratings,” Estep said. “The single factor that seems to determine the ratings most strongly is the expected grade in the course.”

In the study “What’s in a Name: Exposing Gender Bias in Student Ratings of Teaching”, these biases were tested through having online teachers pose as male or female. The study found that regardless of the real gender or performance of instructors, students rated who they perceived as female instructors more harshly than who they perceived as male instructors.

“We pretend to measure something, but the amount of noise in the data is so high that you can’t really call this a measurement,” said Anton Betten, a faculty council member and associate mathematics professor. “It’s not appropriate to do that, and yet nobody seems to have a problem with this, in fact there are some departments who would rather rely on this data than other ways of evaluating effective teaching.”

Betten is the chair of the Faculty Council Committee on Teaching and Learning and the chair of the task force on redesigning the course survey. He, along with many other faculty members, has been working to make a new survey for around two years now.

“We’re trying to build a new tool that has better validity,” Betten said.

After having received recommendations from a course survey redesign group, the next step will be a vote to go-ahead with the redesign from the Executive Faculty Council Committee.

The Associated Students of Colorado State University has also had its role in demanding survey reforms.

“Initially, the effort to reform it was to make it more inline with the 21st century, make it online, make it not paper

so it’s sustainable,” ASCSU President Jason Sydoriak said.  “When I started looking into it and doing my own research I came to the same conclusion that the committees had been coming to, that these course surveys are fairly arbitrary and there is significant bias against females, minorities, and unfortunately, those who have to work in sub-par facilities.”


ASCSU had previously funded about half of the course surveys, a bill of $6,500, but following this, the decision was made to cut the funding entirely. Despite pushback, Sydoriak said he made the decision in the name of justice.

“I truly believe that if there is any hint of injustice that could occur because of the surveys, preventing people from getting promotions, pay raises and other opportunities, then we should stop right now,” Sydoriak said. “We shouldn’t even entertain (the surveys) anymore, and so I pulled the funds,” Sydoriak said.

Sydoriak said that if he was ensured that the new course surveys would not be used in consideration for tenure and promotions, and were no longer completely anonymous, he would immediately fund them. He said he is under the impression that the future ASCSU administration would do the same.   

Pending the approval of the Executive Faculty Council Committee, the prototypes for new surveys will be tested as soon as fall semester, but for now, students should be aware of the power of the surveys.

“Students need to take (the surveys) seriously, because people’s promotions, awards and tenure (decisions) rely on these course surveys,” Sydoriak said.

Collegian Reporter Tatiana Talesnick-Parafiniuk can be reached online at or on Twitter @tatianasophiapt.