RateMyProfessors.com helps distance ed students benefit from other’s experience

RateMyProfessors.com helps distance ed students benefit from other’s experience

An advantage of attending a traditional university is the ability to compare notes with other students about which classes to take, where to park, where to find a cheap meal, and most importantly, which professors to study under.

Distance Education (DE) students are therefore disadvantaged in that we must negotiate university without the benefit of much peer support, and often we learn about pitfalls by falling face-first into them [see Wayne Benedict’s article this week for just one example of how this happens].

Apparently even students at traditional schools have use for a more sophisticated method of sharing their experiences with others, and thus the web site called TeacherRatings.com was formed.

Now titled RateMyProfessors.com (RMP) (http://www.ratemyprofessors.com/canada/index.jsp), the site is built around a very simple survey database where students can rate their professors in terms of their Easiness (how easy is it to score highly in this professor’s course), Helpfulness (how willing is the teacher to answer questions and assist you after class), and Clarity (how well the professor explains the materials – arguably the most important factor in selecting an instructor). The latter two items are used to compile an overall numeric score for each rating, which ranges from 1.0-5.0. Easiness is not used in the overall rating because the programmers of RMP recognize that an easy class or professor is not always a good one.

Students may also enter comments to explain their rating or to advise future students on how to succeed in this prof’s class.

Tutors who rate the highest are noted as “Hot” by the addition of a red chilli pepper icon below their name. The ‘hotness’ score is actually meant to be a rating on the prof’s physical appeal, but clearly is used by many students to indicate a prof that they really like or respect.

In case you are wondering, Athabasca University is on the list of rateable universities, but so far only 31 AU tutors have been rated, and the majority of those have only received a rating from one student, which makes the results a lot less useful than they could be. There is only one AU tutor who has been rated 5 times – Philosophy 333 tutor Scott Jones – and according to his students, he’s hot, hot, hot! From reading his ratings, you can also learn that the textbook for PHIL 333 is terrible [I’ve taken the course, so I can verify this fact.] This is useful information, but only once there is a larger bank of ratings will AU students really be able to benefit from this site.

One other option for AU students, however, is to look up their tutor’s ratings at other schools, since many AU tutors teach at more than one university, as detailed in their tutor introduction letters.

Obviously the best place to find AU specific course ratings information is on the AUSU website course reviews and in the AUSU forums, but RateMyProfessors.com has the benefit of being an impartial third party web site, so students will feel that they can rate their tutors with impunity – an important factor because you can be certain that many professors are less than happy about this type of public comparison method.

In fact, RMP is clearly aware that the site is not making any friends among Canada’s academic staff. A recent RMP press release begins: “Professors Beware: Students Are Doing the Grading.”

It continues: “Students have turned the tables on their professors at RateMyProfessors.com, the Internet’s largest listing of college professor ratings. The free website offers a public review (and sometimes a public flogging) of university professors from across the United States and Canada. Online since 1999, RateMyProfessors now contains over 200,000 ratings for professors from 1700 schools, with hundreds of new ratings added each day.”

However, not all profs resent the ratings system, and at least one – George Watson (http://www.herald-dispatch.com/2003/March/31/OPlist3.htm), assistant professor Marshall’s University College of Education and Services – feels that profs are partly to blame for the creation of the web site. In a Herald-Dispatch article, Watson states that professors created “this problem by refusing to allow students to view our own student evaluation data.”

Watson notes that at his school, “near the end of every semester, students are offered an opportunity to evaluate their instructors by filling out a survey. The survey questions deal with teacher effectiveness, course content and a variety of other academic-oriented topics. Currently, only the instructor and department chairperson view the data.”

Athabasca University offers similar course and tutor rating forms, which are viewed by members of the Tutor Services office, and then are used to create aggregate results sheets for tutors.

At Watson’s school, “a few years ago, students petitioned to have this data made public to allow students the ability to assess the effectiveness and quality of instructors, and thereby make good choices when picking classes. Our Faculty Senate voted that proposal down.”

Students at other schools, including AU, have asked to have such data available to them, or have complained that the university sanctioned ratings forms often ‘tip off’ professors as to the identity of unhappy students.

Because this important data is not released to students, Watson believes that professors “cannot complain when [students] seek to gather information themselves. If we do not agree with the mechanism they have, maybe we should look again at giving them our evaluation data.”

There is justification for students demanding this data. Ours is a free market society, but university is one of few purchases that a person is expected to make without the benefit of research and ratings data to inform their decisions. For many, it is the largest purchase of their lives, with the possible exception of a new home. Students have few means to assess the quality of the service they are purchasing beforehand, as they would with other expensive items like houses, cars, furniture, or computers. Other professional service providers – from landscapers to carpenters, music schools to computer dealers – are subject to ratings by organizations like the Better Business Bureau, and a number of online ratings web sites like BizRate (http://bizrate.com/) and Epinions.com (http://www.epinions.com/), while students are asked to make blind choices and hope for the best. There are some structures in place to help disappointed students file complaints after the fact, but this does little to address the concerns of a student who feels she has wasted her money on a confusing course with an unhelpful professor. It is also concerning that a university has little incentive to remove professors who rate poorly on their internal surveys, since students will be unaware of those ratings and continue enrolling in that professor’s classes anyway.

RateMyProfessor.com promises to help students to make informed choices, and use the experience of other students to their advantage.

Contrary to what some expect, RMP is not a free-for-all forum for angry students. In fact, you are warned to keep your comments clean, and that “anything libellous will be deleted.” RateMyProfessor also claims that over 60% of their ratings are positive. There is one major point of concern, however:

You do not create an account on RMP to add a professor or to vote. Therefore, anyone can rate a professor multiple times, significantly swaying any result. In fact, any professor could rate his or herself as many times as they liked. RMP has informed me that they do have some structures in place to prevent this, but they are not difficult to work around. However, a more secure system is said to be in the works.

I also find RMPs colour system to be confusing. They use a green smiley face to indicate a mediocre rating, while yellow indicates a good rating and blue is bad. This is in conflict with the coloured smiley faces used on popular ratings sites like Bizrate, where Green is always the best, yellow is mediocre, and red is bad. Somehow green just ‘pops out’ at me as a the most positive result and yellow suggests a merely satisfactory rating.

A problem for AU students, is that RMP assumes that a student can use the information contained within to choose professors who rate highly. Unfortunately, at AU we do not have that option, as tutors are assigned based on availability, and tutor seniority. Many students have complained about this fact, but at this time, we have no say in which tutor we get. Nevertheless, AU students still might find the ratings useful as a way of assessing a tutor prior to a course – and a means of avoiding pitfalls that have stymied other students.

My favourite part of the site is the top 15 funniest ratings. My favourites included: “Miserable professor – I wish I could sum him up without foul language” and “BORING! But I learned there are 137 tiles on the ceiling.”

The best, however, is “If I was tested on her family, I would have gotten an A.” This flooded me with memories of my grade 10 biology teacher, who among other intimacies, shared a story of when she had to ice her husband’s testicles to protect his sperm from the DNA ravaging effects of a high fever: talk about information that I did not need to know!

Check out RateMyProfessors.com. At the very least, it’s sure to be entertaining.

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