Rise of the ratings

How RateMyProfessors.com is impacting the academic landscape

By Jacey Gibb, Assistant Editor

Two months ago, when winter semester registration was just another impending deadline circled on your calendar, how did you go about deciding what courses you’d be spending the next 16 weeks with? Did you rely on advice from your older siblings? Press your peers for information? Or did you do what every young person does these days when they’re faced with something they’re unsure of: turn to the Internet for answers.

Back in 1999, a software engineer by the name of John Swapceinski created the website TeacherRatings.com, primarily because of his frustration with a former professor. Fourteen years and a name change later, the site now boasts over 15 million user comments, evaluating 1.7 million professors and compiling ratings for over 8,000 schools. With such impressive numbers to back it, there’s no doubt that RateMyProf is a far reaching vehicle. But despite the website’s popularity, it hasn’t been without controversy and criticism.

What is RateMyProf?

The website itself is an online collection of comments and ratings of different professors and, more recently, schools overall.

When rating a professor, students must provide answers on a scale of 1 to 5 on the professor’s easiness, helpfulness, and clarity, as well as the student’s interest in the subject prior to the course and how much they used the textbook. It is also required that they list what course they took with the professor, in addition to leaving some sort of comment—though some users opt for non-answers such as “No comment.”

Along with the required fields, the website offers students a chance to add information like what final grade they received, whether attendance in the class was mandatory, and, the feature of RateMyProf that is easily the most criticisable, if the professor is attractive.

Despite all of the information required or voluntarily provided by the student, a professor’s “Overall Quality” only comes from a combination of two categories: their helpfulness and clarity. Depending on the collective number of these two ratings, the professor receives a face representative of their quality: a smiley face for a good rating, a non-expressive face for an average rating, or a sad face for a poor rating.

How useful is the website?

Unfortunately, not all of the information provided by students actually shows up on the website. Though things like how necessary the course textbook is or what grade the student received can be included during submission, these don’t show up on a professor’s page with the other ratings. This means that readers are left unaware of things like how well the person rating the professor did in the course. Someone leaving an abysmal rating might only be doing so because they received a failing grade, while a rave review might come from a person who received an A+.

Another factor to take into consideration is that, like most places on the Internet, RateMyProf can be a cesspool of negativity. Because ratings are kept anonymous and there’s no risk of consequence, users can feel entitled to embellish their comments while hiding behind a monitor.

Despite these downsides, the website is still one of the only sources students can refer to for information pertaining to instructor quality. Schools often issue formal evaluations for new instructors, but these are not available to the public. Professors can also choose to conduct their own course evaluations either during or at the end of the semester, but these are usually for personal reference only. Other than word of mouth or drawing from personal experience, RateMyProf is the only guide a student can use.

Is the website actually accurate?

A recommendation to check out RateMyProf usually comes with a free salt shaker, a.k.a. you shouldn’t take the website too seriously. After all, user-based websites are usually a breeding ground for rabid tempers and trash talking. While RateMyProf edits content regularly and reserves the right to remove any comments relating to things like “derogatory remarks about religion, ethnicity or race, physical appearance, mental and/or physical disabilities,” these sorts of comments still exist on the site.

But despite the skepticism towards the website, it may be more valid than people give it credit for. A fair amount of research has been done on the website’s legitimacy, with mixed results. A paper released by the University of Maine entitled “RateMyProfessors.com versus formal in-class student evaluations of teaching” noticed a pattern that professors with high ratings also scored very well in formal evaluations, stating that “when an instructor’s [RateMyProf] overall quality is particularly high, one can infer that the instructor ‘truly’ is regarded as a laudatory teacher.” But this connection between the two is almost exclusive to those with high ratings; there was a lack of any correlation between how professors with low RateMyProf ratings did on formal evaluations.

A paper released in 2011 by the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire also concluded that “Trends in student ratings on RateMyProfessors mirror those found in traditional student evaluations of teaching” and suggested that instead of dismissing the website entirely, institutions should “work with RateMyProfessors administrators to include more questions that are obviously linked to instructor pedagogy.” Basically, instead of writing the website off as a place where students go to bitch and moan, schools should be working towards giving the system more credibility.

The professor point of view on RateMyProf

I decided to reach out to several former professors for their perspective on the matter.

Unsurprisingly, I encountered a wall of resistance against even discussing the website in the first place. I had a few professors tell me that they didn’t believe that RateMyProf even deserved the merit of discussion, while others felt that they just didn’t have enough of an opinion on it. But there were a few who were willing to share their thoughts on the site.

“The ratings are vague and subjective,” one professor explained when I asked about how fair the rating categories were. “The motivation to write also comes from when they have extreme feelings. It’s going to be either really good or really bad.” Surprisingly, this was coming from the professor who, out of those I spoke to, was the most supportive of the website.

The idea of the RateMyProf being a dichotomy environment, with students either choosing to rant or rave about a professor, was a popular perspective as well. “It’s where students go to rant, so I wouldn’t endorse it,” another professor said.

But the awareness that there is opportunity to learn from the website was also evident. If a professor is able to filter out the extremist comments and avoid taking things personally, they can use the feedback in the comments constructively. “We’re all sensitive to criticism,” one professor admitted. “But we need it too.”

Without contest, the most negatively received aspect of the website was the idea of being able to rate a professor’s attractiveness. If a professor receives enough “hot” ratings, a chili pepper appears next to their name on their page.

“The chili pepper signals to people that personal attacks are okay,” the professor most vocally against the feature explained why she didn’t approve of it, with another adding that it “can be incredibly demeaning to the instructor and can also be very personal.”

My first semester of post-secondary, I didn’t even know about RateMyProf. I simply chose my courses around what allotted for maximum sleeping in time. As a result, I got a handful of really awful professors and a handful of really amazing ones. Since that hodgepodge of a semester, I’ve turned to RateMyProf to help, but also not define, what courses I take—and I believe it’s paid off magnificently. Research supports the website’s validity, and until institutions like Douglas College decide to implement a more official system for evaluating professors, it’s the only tool we’ve got. As long as you’re able to detect the ratings coming from resentment and the ones with reason, RateMyProf is a great tool to help you navigate the post-secondary world.