Print Edition: November 16, 2011
With registration for the winter 2012 semester set to open today, students are once again turning to opinion aggregate site RateMyProfessors.com to help them decide which teachers to consider and which ones to avoid.
Like other consumer review websites, RateMyProf claims to provide students with honest, insider reports on their prospective professors by averaging evaluations from anonymous users. But do these comments and arbitrary numeric values really tell a student what they need to know before signing up for a class?
Darren Blakeborough, a UFV Communications professor since 2004, feels there is a widening discrepancy between the opinion of a classroom and what ends up online.
“One thing I’ve noticed is that if people don’t like an instructor, they’re clearly more vocal about it,” he said.
Blakeborough explained that in a class of 35, it’s much more likely for one of five dissatisfied students to write a negative review than for one of the 30 other students who enjoyed the class to bother to write a positive one.
“If you go down all the teacher lists… and you see a really high number of reviews, they’re mostly negative,” Blakeborough said.
Despite its skewed portrait of student satisfaction, RateMyProfessors.com boasts over 3 million users from North American colleges and universities per month.
“There’s no statistical relevance to this whatsoever, yet you guys put a lot of faith in it,” Blakeborough said.
While some users feel the site gives them free reign to be as critical or downright slanderous as they should like, many professors pay close attention to the comments on the website.
“I don’t put a lot of stock in them,” Blakeborough said, “But having said that, I will confess that every time I go to check, I get little bit scared that maybe there’s going to be something really hurtful. It’s hard not to take them personally.”
Some teachers are so affected by the ratings that they actually go to the trouble of adding reviews to their own profiles to correct what they see as unfair personal attacks that misrepresent their teaching style and ability. This is one of the many problems associated with anonymous reporting sites.
“To tell you the truth, I’ve seen a lot of professors go on and do their own ratings on there,” Blakeborough said. “I have seen it with my own eyes.”
Conversely, someone with a personal vendetta against a particular professor has all the tools at their disposal to ruin their reputation online. There are no provisions in place to ensure that the users have taken a class with the professor or even attend the university.
UFV Mathematics professor Erik Talvila suggested that although the average might work out to something similar to that of an in-class teacher evaluation, the comments and individual ratings on RateMyProf reflect the extremes on either side of the spectrum instead of the experience of most students.
“They tend to be kind of polarized,” he said. “Students tend to put on reviews if they really like a course or professor or really dislike a course or professor.”
In order to help correct this, Talvila indicated that he often asks his students to contribute a review to the website. Erik Talvila’s 37 student reviews – dating back to his first semester at UFV in fall 2003 – average out to 3.6, just above UFV’s institutional average of 3.54. But the individual ratings and comments vary wildly.
One user commented that “Once you get used to his teaching style, it’s fairly easy to see what he’s teaching.” Another wrote, “There is no point in going to his lectures unless you can look into his head and translate what he is saying into English. He might as well teacher [sic] this course in Chinese.”
Most of the negative reviews on Talvila’s profile come from students at the lower-level. UFV’s nursing, business and biology programs all have lower-level math requirements – not to mention the fact that Math 105 is a prerequisite for admission into most elementary school teaching programs across the province, UFV included. Talvila said the ratings reflect their lack of interest or expertise in the field.
“Almost nobody takes math because they’re a math major,” said Talvila. “[They] aren’t necessarily good at it, so they don’t necessarily do that well.”
In addition, there can often be a lack of perspective in the comments. Talvia said that many first-year students do not have the experience of other university courses to assist by way of comparison. But these knee-jerk reactions find permanence online.
“I think if those students were to redo their evaluations after three years of university, they’d have a very different perspective,” he said.
But Talvila pointed out that the reviews on RateMyProf do have the feature of coming unprompted from students and “lets [them] be more honest and more personal… people will make all kinds of personal remarks that they wouldn’t be comfortable making otherwise.”
Blakeborough noted that this can also be one of the flaws of the commenting system on the website; the potential for productive feedback and useful recommendations is there, but too often, students launch into personal attacks or dwell on trivial matters like appearance instead of focusing on teaching style or content.
“It seems a lot like somebody, you know, wanted to get out of an assignment or wanted a better mark that they probably didn’t deserve,” Blakeborough said, “so they go and get all slanderous of the professor online.”
So how did the website become such a trusted source among students? The answer might be its availability, and the fact that there are few other sources of teacher recommendations outside of the opinion of friends.
Blakeborough said that something like RateMyProf did not exist when he was working on his undergraduate degree, but admitted it would have been difficult not to consult it.
“If it did [exist at that time], I probably would have looked at it, and it would have influenced some decisions I made,” he said.
Many students are likely aware that comments might come from a place of ignorance or other negative influence, but because RateMyProf exists uncontested, students visit it.
Once on the website, students can’t help but be affected by what they see, and this is filtered through the arbitrary categories professors are rated in: Easiness, Helpfulness, Clarity, Rater Interest and, somewhat controversially, Hotness.
Talvila remarked that “Easiness isn’t what faculty strive for, but the students have a different perspective on that.”
When it comes to alternatives to the website, both professors brought up the student-teacher evaluations conducted by the university.
“What I’d like to see is the university make the classroom evaluations publicly available. At some universities they are,” Talvila said.
Blakeborough expressed a similar sentiment: “I would actually probably advocate something like that.”
If RateMyProf hasn’t increased the thoroughness of teacher criticism, it can at least be said to have increased the visibility. At a time where learning outcomes, test scores and university-conducted evaluations are taken as evidence of quality of learning, the question is if this kind of discourse is affecting what goes on in the classroom.
Anticipation of a negative review can make it difficult for an instructor to feel confident in providing constructive criticism or feedback on a student’s work. There is an underlying anxiety that a low grade that might be construed as a value judgement to a student who has an outlet for their resentment. This can lead to grade inflation.
“I could think you’re the greatest person in the world, but if this isn’t the greatest paper in the world, your grade will reflect that,” Blakeborough said. “And that’s tough to make that distinction for some students.”
This sort of atmosphere can inhibit a teacher’s willingness to introduce a necessarily rigorous workload.
“I find that a lot of professors… get crucified because they expect you to actually do work,” Blakeborough said. “And that’s wrong.”
The prominence of a website like RateMyProf speaks volumes about student expectations for their university experience. Are we interested in hard work and personal growth or just a piece of paper that will presumptively land us a comfortable job?
According to Blakeborough, there is a growing sense of entitlement among students—noticeable even in his seven years at UFV—who expect an “easy road” to a degree in exchange for their money.
“We have turned education, which is supposed to be more than an economic transaction, into just that: a business,” he said. “There are lots of schools that will sell you a degree. But if you actually want to learn something and pay the money that you’re paying to learn it, put in the effort required.”