During these past few weeks, students throughout the University of Connecticut campuses have been carefully crafting their schedules and then anxiously awaiting their pick times. Undoubtedly, a good portion of these students looked at the website Rate My Professors to help choose at least some of their professors or courses.
The “largest online destination for professor ratings” according to the site’s “About” page, Rate My Professors has ratings for over 1.7 million professors across the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. The site states that it is “built for college students, by college students” and that it only does “what students have been doing forever—checking in with each other…—to figure out who’s a great professor and who’s one you might want to avoid.”
While guidance from peers who have taken a certain course or professor is undoubtedly helpful, does online anonymity still allow for the same level of confidence in a student’s rating? Are these ratings truly accurate and helpful? And how do the professors feel about all of this?
Making the grade
Of course, many students use Rate My Professors to find “good” professors to take each semester. Many students even look forward to being able to use this site when they come to college. Because universities can be very big and students don’t always know who to ask for advice when it comes to professors or courses, students find Rate My Professors an easily accessible alternative to asking a friend.
Some students use the site more than others, and for different purposes.
“I use it for like every class,” an anonymous seventh-semester English major said.
This student also stated that while she does not use the site to look at professors for gen-ed classes, she does use it to determine which professors’ classes she would like to take when those classes are in her major.
“I use it if there are multiple sections that fit my schedule of a class so I could determine which one I want to take based on if the professor’s good or not,” seventh-semester English major Matthew Stroneski said.
Many other students use Rate My Professors in a manner similar to Stroneski. They believe that ratings on the site give an accurate picture of their possible professors and choose which class sections to take based on this information.
“I think it’s been fairly accurate,” Stroneski said. “Because I’ve picked the worst choice before and it has been a little bit grueling, but I had that mentality going into it.”
Looking at it differently
In addition to searching for professors, some students find Rate My Professors to be a good source of information about courses themselves.
As a college student on a budget, ninth-semester student in English and Linguistics/Psychology Madeline Eller said that looking at Rate My Professors is helpful to determine if she must purchase certain books.
“I check to see if they use the textbook so I can see if I should buy it or not,” Eller said.
Additionally, students like fifth-semester molecular and cell biology major Manahil Shaikh said that they use Rate My Professors during the semester for study tips.
“I like the reviews where it’s like ‘This is how I studied for the class, this is how I ended up doing,’” Shaikh said.
A grain of salt
In the site guidelines, Rate My Professors encourages users to be honest and constructive. Though the guidelines discourage the use of “definitive” language (for example, “always,” “never”) and comments about a professor’s personality, reviews abound that describe professors’ traits or mention how professors “always” do something.
Most students reading the reviews know to think critically about them and to take them with a grain of salt. They understand that the ratings on the site may be biased or inaccurate.
Shaikh noted that many students review professors based on the grade that they received in a certain professor’s class. She said that biology classes, for example, can be difficult and that many students struggle with some of the harder concepts. However, the grade that students earn reflects the amount of effort that they put into the class and is the basis for many of their reviews.
“Not everyone in a class of 200 is going to put in as much effort as the class requires, and then those people who don’t put in effort tend to not do as well and then they’ll go on and write the reports,” Shaikh said. “You can’t really know what kind of student the person who’s writing the report is, so you just have to take that into consideration.”
The anonymous seventh-semester English major agreed. She said that she has often seen reviews written by students who feel that the class did not live up to their expectations of an easy A.
“Especially when it comes to English, there are students who clearly didn’t realize they had to do actual work and are just complaining about that, and those [types of reviews] are pretty easy to spot,” she said.
Madelyn Severson, a fifth-semester biological sciences major, said that she doesn’t pay attention to some of the negative reviews on the site. After rereading some of the reviews of her professors after having taken their classes, she disagrees with some of the comments that students have made.
“Sometimes I just ignore it because, like, one of the professors that I had before—and I actually liked her—you go on there, and she has like horrible reviews, but I’m like, ‘I like her, so I don’t care,’” Severson said.
A view from the other side
Professors are people too. And on sites like Rate My Professors, instructors don’t get a voice to explain how or why they do what they do.
Because Rate My Professors is anonymous and oftentimes biased, professors don’t often seek out their reviews on the site. Like any other person, professors don’t usually want to read rude or mean comments about themselves.
“How would students feel if we put up a website that was ratemystudent.com?” Professor of English Lisa Sánchez asked. “It seems to me like a recipe for, at least from the faculty point of view, for harassment and nastiness.”
Other professors, including Assistant Professor of Physics Cara Battersby and Assistant Professor of English Sean Forbes, described their feelings about the site in in-person interviews.
All of the professors spoken to discussed their worries about comments on the site being taken out of context.
“I feel you can’t stop something like this from existing, even if it’s not a website, people are going to say these things to each other, these kind of opinions do exist, so I don’t see a problem with it being posted on a public website,” Battersby said. “The problem is more how people interpret that or how they use that information.”
Forbes and Sánchez questioned if some of the ruder remarks didn’t count as libel or defamation, and Sánchez stated that the site should be moderated so that untrue or very hurtful comments could be taken down.
Additionally, due to the flawed nature of such evaluations, factors beyond just student reviews must be considered in an analysis of a professor’s teaching effectiveness. Much research supports the idea that student evaluations of teaching (like those on Rate My Professors or those done in more formal surveys) are heavily based on a student’s perception of their professor or projections onto that professor, Sánchez said.
“Lots of serious researchers have looked at whether or not those SET scores correlate to somebody’s teaching effectiveness in the classroom, and the answer is no,” Sánchez said. “Often, it’s like a personality contest.”
Similarly, Battersby noted that “the way that courses are evaluated is kind of problematic, because it really just has to do with how much you like the professor and has very little to do with how effective they are in actually educating you.”
Like Sánchez pointed out that student reviews could be very focused on the professor’s personality, Battersby mentioned that student reviews could also be centered on whether or not students liked the teaching methods that the professor used, rather than the actual effectiveness of those methods.
“If you (a professor) never gave any homeworks and just showed videos every day, you’d probably get great ratings,” she said. “But is that actually what people are paying for? Is that actually going to be a good learning experience for them (students) that prepares them for the real world?”
In addition to this observation that students often base ratings on how much they liked the course, Battersby pointed out the selection bias inherent in Rate My Professors, a site where anyone can go on and comment. Because students who had a negative experience are more likely to post a review than students who felt that the course was completely fine, the ratings can be biased, Battersby said.
What professors want students to know
Rather than focus on the professor of the class when it comes time to pick courses, Battersby and Sánchez hope that students truly consider the course material and what new subjects they can learn while in college. Sánchez stated that a student should use his/her four years of college to take courses that mean something to him/her.
Battersby also brought up the idea of getting your money’s worth from your classes. She suggested taking courses in which a student could challenge him/herself, learn about something that he/she doesn’t know or learn about something that he/she will have fewer opportunities to learn about later in life.
A common refrain in the professors’ remarks was the wish that students would come to them with concerns, suggestions or problems.
Forbes mentioned that many students don’t come to his office hours in the beginning or middle of the semester but that he begins to see students showing up a few weeks before finals asking about extra credit opportunities. He explained that he wishes that students would come to him earlier in the semester if they had problems so that he would be better able to help them succeed in the rest of the course.
Though Forbes senses that students believe that professors should only be seen during class time, Forbes encourages students to use office hours to start a rapport with their professor and get to know him/her.
Battersby also expressed that students should use in-person means of communication with their professors if students would like to voice a concern.
“Don’t use something like Rate My Professors in lieu of real human conversations,” Battersby said. “Because most professors, if you’re unhappy about something, especially during the semester if you just go to their office hours and you talk with them… I think most professors would be open to changing their ways.”
Sánchez agreed that student-professor relationships could be improved through honest, open conversations. She and many other professors would rather hear a students’ concerns from the student him/herself rather than through an anonymous website.
“If I thought it (the comments on Rate My Professors) was of any value to me as an instructor, I would definitely check it out,” Sánchez said. “But we know that the best way to get feedback is to actually have an in-class conversation with the students about ways that they think you can improve your performance and also having peers come into the classroom and do observations.”
A professor’s true profession
Most of all, Battersby wants students to know that professors are doing their best and really do care about fostering a fair and effective learning environment for students while teaching them about a certain subject.
“When I teach people science, especially if it’s a gen-ed, if it’s the only science they’re going to take in college, I feel it’s so important for me to make sure that they leave that course having a positive attitude about science,” Battersby said. “Because those people are going to go on to make policies or run companies or be teachers… you want them to actually have a real understanding and appreciation for science.”
Instructors truly do feel responsible to engage students and to effectively communicate their subject material. At the end of the day, it’s less about a professor’s rating on an anonymous website than their efforts to instill the value of learning.
Stephanie Santillo is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.