RateMyProfessors: Is There a Lesson to be Learned?

RateMyProfessors.com needs no introduction to most instructors. The problems with the site are equally well known. There’s no guarantee that the students who select to evaluate and post the comments are a representative sample—and no guarantee that the assessments themselves are representative.

In fact, in the Kindred and Mohammed (reference below) analysis of evaluation for 626 professors, 41.5 percent had only one rating listed. The site does not prevent students from evaluating a given instructor more than once. It does not ensure that they have even taken the course they are evaluating. And there’s nothing that prevents an instructor from entering high scores and making nice comments.

Despite these problems, use of the site continues to grow. Brown, Baillie, and Fraser (reference below) report that in January 2009 the site boasted more than 6.8 million ratings for more than a million instructors from over 6,000 colleges and universities in the United States, Canada, England, Scotland, and Wales. The numbers show just how interested students are in finding out as much as they can about a course before taking it—that was also one of the findings from the focus group interviews conducted by Kindred and Mohammed. Eighty-three percent of the students surveyed by Brown, Baillie, and Fraser reported that they had visited the site. They go there because most institutions do not give students access to end-of-course rating data.

Thirty-six percent of the students in Brown, Baillie, and Fraser’s sample said they had posted on the site. Students in Kindred and Mohammed’s focus groups said that students posted because they wanted to share information about the course with other students. They also indicated that students are especially motivated to offer assessments when a teacher is really good or really bad.

Kindred and Mohammed did a content analysis of 788 comments—just about 75 percent of students who rated professors made comments. “Approximately 42% of the ratings coded in the present sample (437 ratings) contained statements pertaining to the competence of the instructor.” About 30 percent of those comments were negative, with the remaining 70 percent positive. The researchers conclude, “While issues such as personality and appearance did enter into the postings, these were secondary motivators compared to more salient issues such as competence, knowledge, clarity and helpfulness.”

What do students think about the ratings and comments that appear on the site? In Brown, Baillie, and Fraser’s survey, 71 percent of the students said they avoided taking an instructor based on the ratings that appeared on the site. Interestingly, 58 percent of that sample said they thought students were more honest in the evaluations posted on the site than on the evaluations collected by the institution at the end of the course. However, in the focus group interviews conducted by Kindred and Mohammed, students said they trusted the opinions of their friends more than what they read on the RateMyProfessors site. They also reported that they took evaluations on the site less seriously if a lot of the comments contradicted each other. They said they could tell when a comment was just angry venting and took those comments with a grain of salt.

The RateMyProfessors site does not appear as though it is going away any time soon and its astounding popularity attests to how hungry students are for information about courses. Are there ways instructors could share this information about their courses? Doing so helps to ensure that students get accurate information about the course and its instructor.

References: Kindred, J. and Mohammed, S. N. (2005). “He will crush you like an academic ninja!”: Exploring teaching ratings on ratemyprofessors.com. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10 (3), article 9. http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol10/issue3/kindred.html.

Brown, M. J., Baillie, M., and Fraser, S. (2009). Rating ratemyprofessors.com: A comparison of online and official student evaluations of teaching. College Teaching, 57 (2), 89-92.

Excerpted from Despite Shortcomings Popularity of RateMyProfessors.com Grows, The Teaching Professor, vol. 23, no. 6, pg. 8.