Editorial: Institutionalizing professor and course evaluations

Most of us are familiar with ratemyprofessor.com. The website gives college students the opportunity to anonymously rate professors and their different classes on a five-point scale regarding the professor’s clarity, helpfulness and easiness. Additionally, students can comment on whether a teacher is “hot” or “not.” The site has accumulated over 15 million ratings for over 1.4 million professors.

Despite its popularity, ratemyprofessor.com has plenty of issues. While the site has millions of ratings, they are most likely written by students with extreme views of the professor in question. The anonymity of the ratings also does little to help maintain accuracy. Professors with few ratings are most at risk for a skewed overall rating, and many classes may have only one or two ratings in total.

Gender bias in anonymous online ratings is also a concern. A study completed by a history professor at Northeastern, however, found that “students are just about as likely to call men ‘hot’ or ‘sexy’ as they are women.” That said, discrepancies regarding the criteria used to judge female versus male professors still exist: Female professors are more likely to be judged based on organization and friendliness, while male professors are more likely to be evaluated based on arrogance or humility. Clearly, the rating of a teacher’s attractiveness does not add to the helpfulness of the site. While students do tend to rate more attractive professors favorably, hotness is not the reason students choose certain professors over others.

Problems with the accuracy and bias of online ratings are cause for concern among university faculty and students looking to invest in high-quality courses and professors. Because sites like ratemyprofessor.com are used with such frequency, however, it may be worth it for universities to acknowledge their widespread use and encourage students en masse to responsibly rate their professors on these sites. Such a policy would ameliorate the problem that students with extreme views are the ones who most likely complete ratings, thus making the site more well-rounded in its presentation of professors.

In order to provide students with more relevant and reliable evaluations of professors and courses, Tufts could selectively publish the evaluations that student complete every semester. These evaluations would be far more reliable than ratemyprofessor.com, which has a tendency toward vitriolic ratings and incomplete representations of a professor’s quality.

Professors’ concerns about the lack of privacy caused by public evaluations are definitely valid. However, privacy in a world where finding your professor’s Facebook or LinkedIn requires just a few clicks is already questionable. Students would benefit more from the availability of reliable, university-sponsored evaluations than they would from what is publically accessible: often inaccurate online forums such as ratemyprofessor.com.