Professors consider online ratings often inaccurate

Students review professors anonymously on these rating websites. Photo credit: Liesje Powers

Many students use online professor ratings from websites such as Rate My Professors and to determine which professor’s class to register. Ratings on these sites are anonymous reviews by fellow students who previously took the class. The websites have listings of the highest- and lowest-rated professors with scores based on various factors such as workload, helpfulness or availability. However, student biases and unreliability have caused controversy over professor ratings. Extreme ratings are either unhelpful or irrelevant.

“I do not have a class with this prof, but he is the sexiest religion prof I’ve ever seen. But he sucks on the Xbox,” said one review of a Baylor professor on Rate My Professors.

Professors have found that the online ratings are not representative of the curriculum, have little context given for comments and are based on personal views of the students. Dr. Beth Allison Barr, associate professor and graduate program director in the history department, said that she used to read online professor ratings when she first began teaching, but she no longer does because she realized that the reviews tended to be written only by students who really liked or disliked her.

“I don’t think it has much to do with teaching ability and more to do with student perception,” Barr said.

Dr. Tamara J. Lawrence, senior lecturer in the department of psychology and neuroscience, said professor reviews tend to stick to the extremes.

“Sometimes I wonder if the people who write those reviews are the students who have been really successful or who had a really bad experience,” Lawrence said.

Reviews tend to feed upon one another, Barr said. If a student sees low ratings, they enter the class with these expectations and are more likely to give low ratings in return at the end of the semester.

Students may review a professor’s teaching style, personality, physical looks or workload. Low ratings may be linked to students having negative emotional responses to their interactions with a professor.

“This was a challenging course that was made more difficult by an unhelpful and cynical professor,” one review on Rate My Professors said. “Intentionally makes students feel stupid. Made me feel like I would fail on the first day. I got a B but thought I was getting an F due to his attitude.”

Students may leave negative reviews when they feel that the professor’s teaching style did not help them learn, which may be linked with student performance or with a professor’s teaching ability.

“I spent my time in class reading the textbook,” one Rate My Professors review said. “He lectures for a solid 80 minutes but doesn’t say anything. If you don’t have a good SI [supplemental instruction] person, you’re in trouble. I made it out with a B+ and a stomach ulcer.”

Some positive reviews have less to do with the professor and more to do with the coursework assigned and the ease of passing the class overall. As a result high ratings may not be indicative of learning and effective teaching.

Many positive reviews focus on the personality and teaching style of a professor. They may exaggerate to demonstrate how much they liked the professor and, like negative reviews, they generalize their experiences to the audience.

“He is my favorite teacher of all time,” said one BUBooks review. “Seriously, this guy knows his stuff. He includes all of his students in his class. He will always talk with you after class and is a great guy. You just have to do a few essays, and he will even help you with it if you have questions or concerns.”

Reviews tend to focus on personal experiences and how students responded to their interaction with a professor rather than pursuing a more objective approach.

“Student evaluations tell more about the students than the teaching abilities of the professors,” Barr said.

There may be pros and cons to professors reading online ratings, particularly for new professors who are trying to determine their teaching style.

“[The reviews] can be very brutal, and that can hurt your feelings,” Lawrence said. “But on the other side, if maybe you have a tough skin, that would represent something that the faculty member could work on. If they are, maybe, insensitive or – I don’t know – go too fast, speak too softly, maybe that could have some valuable insight.”

Every semester, students submit university-wide course evaluations to help professors learn what they have been doing right in the classroom and potential areas of improvement. However, students write university course evaluations differently than when rating professors online.

“It seems like these online ratings forms sometimes get a little personal, like maybe insulting or offensive whereas you don’t see that quite as much in the faculty evaluations,” Lawrence said. “They might be harsh but maybe not comment on their physical appearance or something of that nature, which you sometimes see in BUBooks.”

Baylor course evaluations can be correlated with students’ GPA, Lawrence said, and when class grades are poor, course evaluations tend to be as well.

“At least when we do the evaluations we have that, so we can kind of tell where those comments are coming from,” Lawrence said. “But as opposed to these online things, we don’t have that grounding point to know if it’s due to grades or just perhaps a bitter student.”

Instead of using online professor ratings, Barr and Lawrence suggested students ask for a copy of a previous semester’s syllabus, to speak with the professor or to speak directly with other students who have taken a professor’s class before instead of relying on online statements that do not provide much of the circumstances leading to a given student’s evaluation.

“Get more firsthand knowledge instead of very second- and third-hand knowledge,” Barr said.