Today’s reading: “What Students Value in Their Teachers – An Analysis of Male and Female Student Nominations to a Teaching Award” by Wennerberg et al. (2023)

I’m not a big fan of student evaluations of teaching, since they’ve often been shown to be biased (see for example Heffernan (2021)), so when I saw the title of this article on “What Students Value in Their Teachers – An Analysis of Male and Female Student Nominations to a Teaching Award” by Wennerberg et al. (2023), I dropped everything and read it, because suspected that they would find the same bias, as they did. Here is my summary.

Wennerberg et al. (2023) look at 194 nominations for a teaching price in 2018 “at a big Swedish university”. 3/4 of teachers being nominated were male, even though of the nominating students, most were female. However, female students only nominated 28% female teachers (which is still better than the 18% female teachers nominated by male students) ((“better”, of course, might be too general a judgment because it depends on the gender ratio in the teacher pool, too, and is assuming that male and female teachers are more or less equally excellent)).

They then code the way teachers are described in those nominations. Male students typically describe male teachers as professional and pedagogical, and female teachers as happy and always smiling, putting students in a good mood. Female students also typically describe male teachers professional and pedagogical, but female teachers as subject knowledgeable.

The way students nominate teachers is then explained by stereotyping, i.e. rewarding when people act in line with our expectations, but not if they do excellent stuff that falls outside what we expect: “The stereotypically good teacher seems to be a male who can explain the subject and makes students active and motivated to learn by a course design that prepares them successfully for the examination“. This does indeed sound like how good teachers have been described for a long time, but it is not really how we think about good teaching any more; now the focus is much more on interaction of active students, and their learning.

I then love the strong start of the conclusions chapter: “We argue that the process of teaching awards discriminates against women and does not help in the development of teaching in higher education as it is supposed to“. They then highlight that these prices also overlook the important backstage work that contributes to good teaching and that students are very unlikely to be aware of (a problem of all individual teaching awards!). They end by advocating for ETP-like systems, which I am not as positive about as they are, due to recent experiences. And, as they point out earlier, only minority of people who get a reward feel that that’s motivating them to (further) improve their teaching. So maybe rewarding “excellent teaching” isn’t actually the way to go in order to improve teaching?

P.S.: One part I really did not understand that I need to look into: In their introduction, Wennerberg et al. (2023) state, as one of several problems of teaching awards, that “outcomes of teaching awards seem strongly tied to taking risks in teaching (Willingham-McLain, 2015)“, but then this is directly in contrast to stereotyping, where risking being different than what people expect is usually punished. Looking at the Willingham-McLain (2015) article, it seems that the award described there was specifically designed to award risk-taking (related to activating students), and thus … awarded risk-taking? Maybe Wennerberg et al. (2023) are talking about different types of risks in the different parts of their article, but to me this seems weird.

P.P.S.: In case you are wondering about the connection of the featured image to the blog post: There is none. My  reason for choosing it was that I rediscovered it and that I hope I always look this happy when teaching! :-)

Willingham-McLain, L. (2015) Using a scholarship of teaching and learning approach to award faculty who innovate, International Journal for Academic Development, 20:1, 58-75, DOI: 10.1080/1360144X.2014.995661

Wennerberg, J., Bolander Laksov, K., & West, T. (2023). What Students Value in Their Teachers – An Analysis of Male and Female Student Nominations to a Teaching Award. Högre utbildning13(2), 88–102.

Leave a Reply