Survey Says: Biology Teachers Are “Tricky”

A guest post by Matt Taylor

After the end of every semester, some of us delight in reading student evaluations. Others might dread seeing them, and still others might pay as little attention to them as possible. Beyond the end-of-semester reviews that students complete for the College, many students also write about their instructors online. For example, on, students rank each instructor on three criteria: Helpfulness, Clarity, and Easiness. Then students can elect to write a few sentences about their experiences with the instructor.

Today I found a neat tool that summarizes what students write about professors in 25 disciplines. All the user has to do is decide on a word to search (for example: funny); the program then searches 14 million reviews on and tallies how many times the chosen word appears. It separates the results for female and male professors. Although the tool reveals gender splits for some words, that wasn’t what interested me. Instead, I wanted to see where biology professors ranked relative to professors in other disciplines.

I considered 18 words that students might use in a review. These searches produced 18 graphs, which are shown at the bottom of this post. Biology professors ranked at the top of the list for “tricky” and “hard,” near the top of the list for “tough,” and near the bottom of the list for “easy.” Many biologists demand a lot from their students. They’re also least likely to be called “annoying” and fairly unlikely to be called “boring.” For the other 12 words that I chose–some positive and some negative–biology professors were right in the middle of the pack. (I’m sure you can think of other interesting words to choose. If you do, please leave a comment at the bottom of this post.)

Using averages from many surveys does not predict how any individual professor behaves in front of the classroom. However, these results might reveal preconceptions that students have when entering a biology classroom. If students think that their professor will be hard, tough, or even “tricky,” then they may not have confidence in their success. And students that lack confidence may not be motivated learners (at least according to Keller’s ARCS model).

So do we go easy on our students? No, I don’t think we should sacrifice rigor in the biology classroom. But since students may expect their biology professor to be tricky and tough, we should be extra careful about explaining what we expect of our students. Give them rubrics for subjectively graded assignments so they can self-assess their performance. Provide them with previous exams so they know what kinds of questions will be asked. Assure them that the multiple choice questions they will see are carefully written; so if they read each question carefully (and know their stuff, of course), then the answer should not be ambiguous.

What other strategies can you think of to convince students that although you may be a rigorous professor, you will not intentionally be tricky?

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Survey results
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7 Responses to Survey Says: Biology Teachers Are “Tricky”

  1. Doug says:

    Great blog! I find it concerning that Biology ranked so low in categories such as engaging, fun, interesting, and awesome. What subject has more interesting, engaging, fun, and awesome stories to explore than biology?

  2. jmlandin says:

    Awesome tool – thanks for sharing.
    After years of being called “Mrs.”, I’ve wondered how many male professors are called “Mr.” Is it just a slip? Or are women less likely to be considered “Dr.”?
    I looked up “Dr.” using this tool (931F:1216M) but wanted to find percentages. So I looked up “the” (16341F:17143M), figuring that should give me some rough totals.
    Answer: 5.7% females in BIO called “Dr.” & 7.1% males in BIO called “Dr.” Now I just need error bars.
    p.s. My husband cracks up at the chili peppers on RMP. We looked up “hot” – entertaining. (hint: BIO doesn’t score very high) 🙂

  3. Thanks for running some numbers for “Dr.” Interesting results. I took it a step farther this morning. I searched “and,” “a,” “but,” “the,” and “I” to get a better idea what proportion of the reviews are about male professors and what proportion are about female professors. After averaging the female and male totals for each of those words, it turned out that 49.5% of the reviews are about females and 50.5% are about males. Really close to 50/50, so considering the results that you found when you search “Dr.”, male professors are more often called “Dr.” than are female professors in the reviews. I also searched for “Mr.”, which came up 250 times for biology, and “Mrs.”/”Ms.”, which together came up 349 times for biology.

  4. jmlandin says:

    OMG – look up “evolution”!!!

    • Sorry for the delay in responding! I just looked up “evolution” — what are your thoughts about the pattern?

      • jmlandin says:

        Males & Females are roughly 50/50, yet the word “evolution” shows up about half the time for females in biology. My first impression is that females may not be introducing the topic as much as males. What do you think?
        (This could be a fascinating study if this is the case!)

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