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Students using RateMyProfessors.com — but with caution

By JEFFREY GUIHER

Published April 25, 2016

“I never actually look at RateMyProfessors.com. When I want to know what students think — which I always do — I ask them.”
Timothy Boyd, research associate professor
Department of Classics

Ujjwala Lahoti has a routine when deciding what classes to take. The UB senior accounting major goes online, looks up the course she is considering and notes the name of the professor teaching a class.

She then logs onto RateMyProfessors.com.

Near the top of her computer screen is a gray search bar with a prompt to log in or sign up. She types the professor’s name in the search bar. When the professor’s name appears, she’ll click on it, finding the match for both name and university.

RateMyProfessors.com immediately gives Lahoti cumulative student ratings for the professor’s helpfulness, clarity and easiness, all listed below an overall rating for teaching quality. There are also tags to describe the professor, such as “hilarious” and “amazing lectures,” along with a count of how many times the tag was selected. Below the ratings are student comments.

“I look into the course and see what all professors are teaching, and then take the professor's name and search him on the website,” says Lahoti. “And then, accordingly, I register for the class.”

Lahoti is far from alone. This brief — but potentially decisive process of checking RateMyProfessors.com before chosing a course — is something many students have adopted as an essential tool in deciding which faculty members they want as teachers.

RateMyProfessors.com is the largest online rating site for college and university professors in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. The site claims more than 15 million rating postings in more than 7,000 institutions. Students can either post reviews or comments, ideally to help alleviate for others some of the stress and indecision inherent in making course selections.

But not everyone is a fan of RateMyProfessors.com. Many have questioned its credibility since software engineer John Swapceinski started it in 1999. There is no guarantee that those using it are a representative group of college students. There is also no assurance that vindictive students are not inflicting low ratings on professors who justly gave them poor grades. High ratings given in appreciation for an “easy A” are equally unfair to the more demanding educators.

But Lahoti and other students trust their peers. They realize not all comments will be reasonable and accurate.

“I take the comments seriously to a point,” Lahoti says. “It even depends on how many people have written the comments. If it’s only one or two, then I look into which [class] time suits me. Mostly, the comments are true about the professors. It’s our peers who write them, and these days we all follow up on this website a lot so people do write true comments.”

The UB Reporter recently surveyed students about RateMyProfessors.com — questionnaires were left at the circulation desks at the North Campus libraries. A week later, students had returned 52 responses.

Results of this random, informal survey indicate that students — even those who use RateMyProfessors — have their doubts about its accuracy as an assessment of teaching quality. But even though they have their doubts, most students returning the survey said they are likely to check out what the site says about professors.

When asked “Do you check RateMyProfessors.com before registering for classes?” 43 students responded “yes” while only nine said “no.”

Only seven students replied “very serious” to the question: “How seriously do you take the ratings and comments about a professor.” Sixteen chose “serious”; the majority of respondents, 27, selected “somewhat serious.”

Only two people answering the survey selected “not so serious.”

The more feedback a professor had received in RateMyProfessors, the more importance student respondents placed in those ratings.

Thirty-one of the 52 people responding to the survey said they never had posted reviews on RateMyProfessors.com, compared to 21 who said they had.

Their reasons ranged from doubts about the site to whether it’s a good use of their time. Their responses included:

  • “I don’t believe in complaining much. If I have positive feedback for a professor, then I’ll tell him directly.”
  • “I feel it’s too open.”
  • “I don’t have time to make an account.”
  • “I think a lot of the answers tend to be exaggerated.”

UB students are not the only ones on campus with strong reservations about RateMyProfessors.com. UB faculty also share those doubts about its usefulness.

“Given that RateMyProfessors is done voluntarily and anonymously, the validity of professor ratings should not be assumed,” says Xiufeng Liu, professor of learning and instruction and director of the Center for Educational Innovation, which is dedicated to advancing university teaching. “Both students and professors should use additional sources of evidence to cross-validate the RateMyProfessors ratings.”

Most professors interviewed agree with Liu. They consider the site unreliable for feedback and prefer to use other means to assess  how they teach. Some UB professors occasionally check the site, but consider RateMyProfessors more of a secondary source for getting feedback on their teaching.

“I read them, but I try to take them with a grain of salt,” says Shira Gabriel, associate professor of psychology. “For the most part, the comments seem fair and accurate. A couple of times people have written things that didn’t seem accurate, but there are so many comments that a few odd ones don’t concern me.

“I suspect that a student using the website to learn about professors would take that into account.”

Other faculty members also have mixed feelings about the usefulness of the site as a tool for instructors.

“Anecdotal evidence suggests most students, though not all, use the site with the aim of determining which teachers are demanding so that they can avoid their classes …” says Y.G. Lulat of the Department of Transnational Studies, College of Arts and Sciences. “I doubt the site will have much use from the perspective of teachers who truly care about their profession.”

Shahid Ahmad, professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering, calls the opinions in RateMyProfessors “mostly fair and accurate, except for the fact that students with poor performance in a course tend to be more inclined to rate and write comments than those who have done well.”

Although the credibility of RateMyProfessors.com remains in question, Timothy Boyd, research associate professor of classics, says he is not bothered about online commentaries affecting his reputation. He offers what may be the best solution.

“I never actually look at RateMyProfessors.com. When I want to know what students think — which I always do — I ask them.”