As the add/drop deadline approaches each semester, many students look to the site www.RateMyProfessors.com to get the inside scoop on which professors to take courses with and which ones to avoid.
If students wonder if some professors read what is being posted about them, they do. But most professors feel the advice on the website has little value.
“I read the site for myself,” said Ute St. Clair, an adjunct assistant professor in Binghamton University’s School of Management. “I like to see what people criticize and praise me for.”
St. Clair has read all of her comments as well as some of her colleagues’ comments but feels there is nothing scientific about the site. St. Clair pointed out that though she has taught thousands of students over the years, she has only received 79 comments on RateMyProfessors, which she believes limits how much she can learn from them.
Launched in 1999, RateMyProfessors includes 11 million ratings for professors in 6,000 universities and colleges across the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, according to the website. Students can grade professors on various attributes from overall quality to physical attractiveness. Reviewers also have the option of posting a comment.
“On [RateMyProfessors], it’s too selected by either the fans or the enemies of a course,” St. Clair said.
Though some professors view the comments written about them, most think these comments are not an accurate cross-section of students’ attitudes.
“I’m a scientist and there is a sampling problem,” said James Dix, an associate professor of chemistry. “In order to have validation, you must have a representative sample.”
Dix explained that too few students post comments to make the reviews statistically significant.
Matthew Parker, a professor of biology, noted that students, at times, complain about superficial things such as the appearance of a professor.
“I don’t feel I can learn how the average student feels about my course from this site,” Parker said. “People who are motivated to comment are a self-selective group.”
Julian Shepherd, an associate professor of biology and a colleague of Parker, said he felt there were significant discrepancies between types of comments on the site.
“Some comments are just rants but others are valid criticisms,” Shepherd said. “I would just take it with a grain of salt.”
Alexandra Davis, a mixed media professor, also said that the site has not prompted her to change the way she teaches.
“I have seen it a while ago and I just went on it now,” she said. “I would probably not take advice from it, but I would always consider everything.”
Deanne Westerman, an associate professor of psychology, was critical of basing course selection on RateMyProfessors reviews.
“I am not so sure that taking advice from anonymous people on the Internet is the best way to approach scheduling,” Westerman said. “When I was in college, I was warned away from a particular professor because she supposedly taught an impossible class. It turned out to be my favorite class, and that class and that professor is the reason I am now an experimental psychologist.”
Some students regard RateMyProfessors as lighthearted fun.
“I look at RateMyProfessors because I like to see comments that angry students write,” said Julian Vives, a senior double-majoring in psychology and Africana studies. “It’s a joke.”
Vives said that he has rated professors on the site when he was upset. Though he reads the site before taking a course, negative comments have never kept him from signing up for a class. Rather, Vives said the comments prepare him for a professor’s teaching style.
Although BU faculty feel that RateMyProfessors is not a source of good data, they all agree in general terms that student assessment of professors is vital to the teaching process.
“Teaching is an exchange of information,” said Wayne Jones, a professor of chemistry and the director of the Institute for Student Centered Learning committee at BU. “The student has to be involved as well. Faculty are working hard and may not see a full 360 degrees of student perception around the classroom.”
Some professors do modify their teaching methods based on student reviews from RateMyProfessors, however.
“One semester, students said they liked me but that I was boring,” St. Clair said. “I had to think about how I presented the material.”
St. Clair said she believes students can benefit from RateMyProfessors only if the profile has a large number of comments where there is likely to be a trend in the types of critiques offered.
Other faculty claimed they preferred hearing recommendations for how they can improve their teaching directly from students rather than postings on RateMyProfessors.
“This website, you don’t know who is writing,” said Tatiana Krentsel, an adjunct lecturer in the physics department. “How do you know they’re students? It does not help me at all. It’s most helpful if students come talk to the professor face to face, then there might be positive feedback.”
Many departments on campus use “Student Opinion of Teaching” (SOOT) surveys or departmental evaluation forms to get comments from students on how to improve the classroom environment. Professors feel that these forms provide a better overview of student opinion because a larger proportion of students fill them out.
Last year, the Student Association made the SOOT forms accessible online at www.mybingprofessors.com, making the evaluations public for the first time. The site includes numeric rankings of professors across several categories but does not include written comments.