Making the Grade: Faculty turn in mixed reviews of accuracy of RateMyProfessor
With the end of the semester approaching, students are thinking about finals, the break and grades. Some students, however, are looking foward to their own grading – of their professors.
RateMyProfessors.com is a Web site that allows students to do what the name says – make comments that could possibly help future students.
The site does not require a login, however, and anyone can rate and post comments – an element that professors say can make the Web site unreliable.
"If you look at the kinds of comments posted, it is not about course content and the problem with that is that it can attract extremes who will go as far as to judge what a professor is wearing," Honors College assistant professor Susan Collins said.
According to mtvU, RateMyProfessors.com is the most-frequented U.S. college professor rating site with almost 6,000 schools and ratings for more than one million professors from colleges and universities across the United States. The Web site rates professors on a five-point scale in four categories: average helpfulness, average clarity, average easiness and overall quality. One criteria, hotness, is on a different scale.
The Daily Cougar contacted more than 20 professors and only half replied, some saying they did not wish to comment at all.
Some professors said Web sites like RateMyProfessors cannot be taken seriously because of the extreme comments posted by students.
"The problem with the Web site is that it attracts the worst kinds of comments," Collins said. "They don’t put their name to it and can say more personal things. (A) young professor with less thick skin can take it to heart."
Collins advises students to rely on more dependable sources for information on courses.
"I wouldn’t trust it entirely," she said. "When I was in school, it was word of mouth, and it was more trustworthy coming from someone you know."
Collins, who teaches political science, was rated 3.8 out of 5 for overall quality by 19 students. Several other students also commented on the difficulty of her class, with one comment saying that her 3310 Introduction to Political Theory class was a boot camp course.
"It’s like a boot camp? To me, that’s a praise," Collins said. "I understand it’s hard work, and it’s a sign of respect to the students that they are capable of that kind of work."
Keya Mitra, a teaching fellow in the English department, said she worries about the anonymous postings and the "bandwagon effect," even if the Web site can be beneficial.
"Since students can read everyone else’s evaluations, students may write positive or negative comments based on the other comments they read," she said. "These sites can be useful for students to get advice and feedback from past students, but because the site only represents a fraction of the students professors have taught, the information isn’t always entirely accurate."
Mitra had been rated by nine people and was given an overall quality rating of 5.0, with an average easiness of 5.0 and a hotness total of 7.0.
"The comments probably give some good feedback on the classes," she said. "I worry a little bit about students reading comments about the grading policy and coming to class expecting an A."
When asked about her hotness rating, she said one comment was "way over the line."
"I can take a joke, but there’s a time and place, and this Web site isn’t it," she said. "I do have problems with students posting comments about a professor’s physical appearance – such comments are inappropriate and irrelevant in terms of a professor’s ability as a teacher."
Honors College philosophy professor Cynthia Freeland, whose overall rating was 3.8, said that students with prior experience in courses are more valuable and reliable for information.
"Students seem to me to have an excellent word-of-mouth grapevine knowledge about professors and that probably serves them better than these official sites," she said.
Although Freeland is "comfortable with the idea of being evaluated by students" and has been evaluated every semester for almost 30 years, the Internet ratings are not sufficient enough to alter her courses, she said.
"Web ratings are somewhat different because they’re available to everyone to see. They’re too random, too brief and too uninformative," she said. "I think most professors take them with a big grain of salt."
However, Freeland said she does take UH course evaluations more seriously because she is "more likely to respond to specific things – such as what books to use or drop."
"I teach hundreds of students each year, and on this Web site I have 18 reviews over the last three to four years, so that just won’t tell me much," Freeland said.
Lecturer of psychology Herb Agan, who has a rating of 4.5, agrees and said course evaluations give him a better perception of what he needs to change.
"The good thing about course evaluations is that they have a little more integrity," he said. "The Web site comments are probably more guttural emotional expression more than intellectual."
Social work professor Andrew Achenbaum said he takes all comments seriously – even those on RateMyProfessors.com.
"I take teaching seriously, and I am keenly aware of the sacrifices many UH students make to pursue their dreams," Achenbaum said. "I also take evaluations seriously, and if there seems to be a pattern of criticisms, I ask the class what I should do to improve."
Achenbaum has been rated by two people. He received a 3.0 for average easiness, 4.5 for average helpfulness, 4.0 for average clarity, 4.2 for overall quality and zero for hotness.
But philosophy assistant professor Iain Morrison said such Web sites attract certain types of students. Morrison was rated by 12 students and has an overall quality rating of 4.0.
"What inspires students to go to these sites is either a love or hate for their professors," Morrison said. "It’s useful for students because they have more freedom, but it doesn’t represent the whole."
One of the complaints students made about Morrison is how hard he grades and how difficult his class is.
"It seems I grade hard on papers because my comments are critical. But at the end of the day, I don’t give any less (than) A’s or B’s," he said. "I think that many people inflate their grades. I give the papers what they’re worth."
Associated professor of industrial engineering Christopher Chung, who has a rating of 4.4, said that despite being useful, the site also has its drawbacks.
"I think that these types of sites are a potentially useful resource that students can utilize to make their course selection decisions," Chung said. "They are only potentially useful in that virtually anyone can say anything about a professor whether or not the statement is true."
Art history professor Rex Koontz, who has a score of 3.9, said he understands how he can be considered to be difficult.
"If I give myself a little critical distance, I would have to say they are on the mark," he said. "I expect a lot of independent work out of my freshman, and that is the leitmotif here."
In the end, students have the right to voice their opinion, Agan said.
"It’s part of free speech in America," he said. "I think students are smarter than professors give them credit for. We need to take to heart what they say – otherwise it’s a waste of time."
With additional reporting by Christopher Morrison, Tim Burggraf, Mike Damante, Lauren Tucker and Alex de la Torre