English professor Bruce Levy sits in his underground office surrounded by papers and books. As he types away on his desktop one can’t help but notice something’s missing. His shoes.
Many of his students remember Levy for his tall black socks. Others recall him as a helpful and highly accessible professor, or so his reviews on RateMyProfessors.com say.
Levy’s reviews on the public site recently were close to perfect, with a 4.1 overall grade out of 5. A few, though, weren’t so hot. The site allows students to rate their professors numerically and through comments. It also awards good-looking instructors chili peppers for their level of “hotness.”
Levy says he finds the more negative comments amusing and does not take the website very seriously. He even jokes about the website to his students, telling them there ought to be a rating site to warn faculty about them. His imagined site would give teachers the power to choose who takes their classes. And teachers would rate their students according to their willingness to learn.
“Rather than have those hot chili peppers, we should have a beer sty or, like, a bong,” he said.
RateMyProfessor.com was launched 15 years ago with the purpose of providing a forum for students to share ratings and commentary about their professors. Future students can then catch a glimpse of what they are in for prior to enrollment. Since its release, it has published more than a million ratings, all of which are publicly disclosed online and accessed for free.
Today the website is tremendously popular. It gets more than 12 times the traffic that an average Internet site in Texas alone. Its layout and interface have been revamped recently to show a more sleek and modern-looking interface.
However, the rating system remains the same. Students rate professors anonymously using a five-point scale system in three categories: helpfulness, easiness, and clarity. The score is displayed next to a spot for the student raters’ grade in the class.
It is very common, however, for students to rate their teacher but omit their grade in the class. Some teachers see that omission as a sign of spitefulness.
Math professor Dustin Potter sees many of the negative reviews as complaints and expressions of bitterness. He said he likes to challenge his students and is more interested in students learning than whether or not they like him.
He does, however, have his pride.
“I was disappointed that I didn’t have any chili ratings,” he said.
Student athlete Meghan Klein said she uses the site to make sure she can get the best professor when many teach the same course. She said that she enrolled in one of her classes this semester because the instructor had good reviews.
Klein, a rower, finds that so far, many of the comments were true of the professor and finds the class both fun and very interesting.
“If it’s a huge, boring class then it’s not going to be worth taking even if it satisfies a credit,” she said.
The commentary option on RateMyProfessors.com allows students to write about what they liked or disliked about the course and professor. These posts are usually informally written and often include comical anecdotes. Some of the students write in all capital letters, usually about a professor they highly recommend or one they suggest you stay away from.
A study performed by the Appalachian State University’s Sociology department in 2009 studied students’ rating criteria when evaluating professors. They concluded that RateMyProfessors.com rating categories are meant to portray students’ perception of their teacher’s personality and easiness rather than how knowledgeable, interesting, and invested the teacher is in the class. The study shows that 45 percent of remarks are about easiness of workload, and more than half of those are negative because the class is challenging.
According to the study’s sociologists, students can be compared to consumers who shop for classes. They reward instructors for undemanding courses and punish those who require more work.
Spanish professor Betty Nelson believes many of the comments on the site are written in a spirit of vengeance after students receive a bad grade. However, she didn’t reach this conclusion until recently.
Nelson has been teaching for 30 years and had never looked herself up on the site until recently, during an interview with a reporter. Her rating was a respectable 3.0, but she would have preferred a higher score. There were some complaints about her classes’ difficulty level, something she recognizes.
“I realize that I’m demanding but I think that I’m extremely fair in class,” she said.
Another study conducted in 2011, suggests that students who use RateMyProfessors.com are more likely giving each other useful information about their instructor’s quality. The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s research findings disproved the assumption that students use the site to discredit an instructor because they are looking for an “easy A.” They found that on average, professors received more favorable than unfavorable ratings. Their findings also suggest a consensus among students about their professors’ quality of instruction.
Some SMU students, like Kaysy Ostrom, use the website to get a general sense of a course. She doesn’t think the information posted is always accurate, though. The theater major remembers having taken a class with “bad” reviews, but ended up liking the professor even though she had to work hard.
“The reviewers were just slamming it because of the classes’ difficulty,” Ostrom said.
Other means of assessing professors exist as well. Students at SMU and other institutions fill out course evaluations at the end of each semester. These reviews are not available to students, which creates a demand for sites like RateMyProfessor.com.
The formal school evaluations are only accessible to faculty members and those entrusted with the task of hiring new professors and awarding tenured status. Departmental chairs are usually responsible for these decisions but many wonder whether or not information at RateMyProfessor.com plays a role in the process.
Eric Barnes, SMU’s philosophy department chair, said the website’s ratings are not officially taken into consideration when a candidate is assessed because it doesn’t produce a fair depiction of the candidates. Barnes said the department takes students’ formal evaluations very seriously and these do play a critical role in hiring, contract renewal and tenure decisions.
Barnes isn’t oblivious to RateMyProfessors.com’s existence though. He knows that he and other faculty members, as well as department chairs, have access to the database. It’s difficult for him to know if people in his department use it and whether or not it influences their opinions.
“We’ve looked at candidates and I’ve not been able to resist looking at RateMyProfessors. It’s irresistible,” he said.
Even though anyone can access the website, it is students who use it the most to decide what courses to take, especially when it comes to choosing courses outside of their major.
Adrian Aguirre said his math “sucks” and that RateMyProfessors.com was the key to finding a teacher who could help him understand concepts after class hours. With the site’s rating on helpfulness, he found the “perfect teacher.”
“Everyone said that teacher was so great. I’m so glad I took her because I ended up doing well,” the dance major said.
Brian Stump enjoys providing his students extra help if they need it. The Seismology professor is certain the fulfillment of learning outcomes is the most critical component when evaluating a class.
While he does not pay much to the comments about him on RateMyProfessors.com, he does like to read what students write. This information gives him an insight into what aspects of his class students like and dislike. It helps him see where there’s room for improvement.
“All of us need feedback,” he said. “That’s good for us all. We grow when we get feedback.”
By: Adriana Fernandez Ibanez
Senior Journalism Major