A Wake Up Call

As I was revamping CIS3750 for online delivery this summer I began searching for a better way to do peer evaluations. The course is highly dependent on team work and I wanted students to be able to easily identify when peers were going above and beyond or perhaps not living up to expectations.

To assist in this process I redesigned a lab that challenged students to identify their expectations for each other and themselves. I provided a set of poor rubrics and standards so that they could learn what not to do, and I included numerous questions to get them thinking about what was important to them.

I also learned of a new Moodle plugin that could help me in the process of collecting peer evaluations. The intent was to use them to modify the team grade to achieve a fair grade for each team member. Those with better peer evaluations would see their grade go up, and those with worse peer evaluations would see their grade decrease.

Everything seemed fine.

And then a Twitter thread by @ElmankabadyMo stopped me in my tracks. The thread, which you can find here, describes their experience with racism and bias in peer evaluations.

And all I could think was how could I be so stupid?

I know that faculty teaching evaluations are highly biased in favour of straight white males. I know colleagues who have taught the same course and have responded to similar situations in the classroom, only to see the male faculty member lauded and the female faculty member criticized for the same response. I know this. And I knew this when I set up peer evaluations for the umpteenth time this summer as I prepared the class I’m now delivering.

What frustrates me is that the logical leap from faculty teaching evaluations to peer evaluations isn’t a large one. How could I not have seen the connection? How could I not have made the tiniest of leaps (is it even a leap?) from one idea to the other? How could I have dropped the ball?

After thinking about it and after chatting with some colleagues, I came to a decision last week which I have already shared with my class. I still expect them to discuss expectations and set a rubric for themselves because I think it is an important and reflective process. I still expect the teaching assistants to review and comment on the rubrics because it will help the students better define expectations. And, I will still expect the students to provide peer evaluations at numerous stages throughout the course because reflection is incredibly important. However, I will no longer attach the evaluations to their grade.

With everything that is happening in the world right now, the last thing I want to do is put a student’s grade at risk because I failed to recognize that bias might affect their evaluations. Thank you to @ElmankabadyMo for the wake up call.

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