By: Ann van der Merwe
Published: January 7, 2013
For several years now, students have had the opportunity to describe their experiences with college faculty on www.ratemyprofessors.com. As the operators of the site indicate, it is “built for college students, by college students.” It is essentially a digital extension of conversations about courses and those who teach them that take place on campuses around the country. Unlike casual comments made to a few others during course registration, though, the content of the site is anything but ephemeral. Ratings are stored and shared amongst many – including professors.
Faculty interest in a site such as this is not difficult to understand. Our human nature makes us curious about how others perceive us. As such, I found it interesting to view a number of responses – posted in a designated section of the site – from faculty who are obviously engaged with what their students have to say about them but who nevertheless remain committed to the ways in which they teach. To put it another way, the comments made about them – whether positive or negative – only seem to reinforce their own objectives in the classroom.
One reason for this is that a majority of comments on the site address one of two things: the general likeability of the professor and the challenge of his or her class. While these undoubtedly seem important to a prospective student registering for classes, they do not really say much about teaching or learning. More importantly, they are both highly subjective. A professor’s likeability depends on how he or she is perceived by the student in question, which of course depends upon that particular student’s own personality, interests, and opinions. The difficulty of a course is also a matter of perception and, more importantly, expectation. As a result, students in the same course often have widely different views on both of these things.
In addition, some comments made are not just subjective; they are distortions of the truth. To be fair, identifying the problem – or the reason for success – in a learning environment isn’t always easy to do. Even so, some students post ratings with mistaken impressions of reality – and anyone using the site may want to recognize this. For example, a former student of mine describes me as having been unprepared for class. Actually, what I prepared for each meeting was a different type or class than this individual had experienced before. Notably, this person does not criticize the approach, which would have been entirely justified if he or she felt it was not conducive to learning. Instead, the criticism is both personal and false.
Notably, these problems do not make www.ratemyprofessors.com entirely useless or invalid. I am sure that many, like me, are interested in the comments to the extent that they can make them better teachers. They benefit from seeing how students respond, even if some of the details are not right and the appraisal does not match everyone else’s. For instance, from the aforementioned student – and others – I have learned to provide far more detailed explanations of what will and what will not happen in my classroom for any given course than I did when I first began teaching. I have not, however, eliminated the format of this particular course from my repertoire because I believe in its benefits. I have received excellent feedback from other students in this kind of situation, and I have seen interest and inquisitiveness grow within it. As such, I have changed the way I introduce students to my methodology; I have not changed the methodology itself.
From what I have observed, many other professors have responded similarly. And, just as we take what we find to be useful from the site, I would advise students to do the same. Moderate the extreme comments, extract the important information, and leave the rest behind.
Ann van der Merwe is a singer and music historian based in southwest Ohio. She holds a B.M. in music performance and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in music history.