Bias, the Brain, and Student Evaluations of Teaching

53 Pages Posted: 18 Feb 2007

See all articles by Deborah Jones Merritt

Deborah Jones Merritt

Ohio State University (OSU) - Michael E. Moritz College of Law

Date Written: January 2007


Student evaluations of teaching are a common fixture at American law schools, but they harbor surprising biases. Extensive psychology research demonstrates that these assessments respond overwhelmingly to a professor's appearance and nonverbal behavior; ratings based on just thirty seconds of silent videotape correlate strongly with end-of-semester evaluations. The nonverbal behaviors that influence teaching evaluations are rooted in physiology, culture, and habit, allowing characteristics like race and gender to affect evaluations. The current process of gathering evaluations, moreover, allows social stereotypes to filter students' perceptions, increasing risks of bias. These distortions are inevitable products of the intuitive, "system one" cognitive processes that the present process taps. The cure for these biases requires schools to design new student evaluation systems, such as ones based on facilitated group discussion, that enable more reflective, deliberative judgments. This article, which will appear in the Winter 2007 issue of the St. John's Law Review, draws upon research in cognitive decision making, both to present the compelling case for reforming the current system of evaluating classroom performance and to illuminate the cognitive processes that underlie many facets of the legal system.

JEL Classification: A20, A29, K10, J70, J79, I20

Suggested Citation

Merritt, Deborah Jones, Bias, the Brain, and Student Evaluations of Teaching (January 2007). Ohio State Public Law Working Paper No. 87, Available at SSRN: or

Deborah Jones Merritt (Contact Author)

Ohio State University (OSU) - Michael E. Moritz College of Law ( email )

55 West 12th Avenue
Columbus, OH 43210
United States
614-247-7933 (Phone)
614-292-4868 (Fax)

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