Student evaluations are intended to provide teachers, course leaders, faculty managers, and the university more widely, insights into student perspectives of a course’s content and the lecturer’s skills. Universities are so confident in the quality of this data that approximately 80% use evaluation data as part of hiring, promotion, and for restructuring purposes.

This presentation is about the culmination of two decades of scholars’ works around the globe, and the presenter’s own research, about what evaluations are really measuring. The presentation examines research which makes clear that student evaluations are more likely to be influenced by factors including student grades, class timetabling, and what type of assessment is required than factors around course content. More concerningly, the notion of teaching quality or teaching performance has across multiple studies, covering over 1 million evaluations, regularly found that evaluation results reflect student bias towards the teaching staff member’s gender, race, sexual identity, age, language, or signs of disability.

Research has also examined how anonymous student comments reflect the statistical findings. In a recent study, sixty percent of academics from marginalised backgrounds have reported receiving abusive student comments regarding their gender, sexual identity, appearance, and race; with a majority of these academics reporting wellbeing issues, and nearly 20% citing evaluations as a contributing factor to them seeking professional mental health support. The presentation concludes by asking what role evaluations play in 2021. Universities still need data about students’ views on courses and their teaching staff, but are student evaluations the best way to gain the data universities really need, and what alternatives are some institutions already exploring? 


Dr Troy Heffernan is Lecturer in Leadership at La Trobe University.
His research examines higher education administration and policy with a particular focus on investigating the inequities that persist in the sector. His work examines issues such as those related to precarious employment, the implication of academic networks, the factors involved in hiring and promotional decisions, and how universities define success for their staff in a neoliberal age. Dr Heffernan’s research objective is to support universities as their role in the community continues to grow, and help ensure that diverse and marginalised groups are represented and treated equitably throughout the sector.


This seminar will be held using the video conferencing software Zoom. If you would like the link, please email sees.seminars@uq.edu.au.