Graphics and Photos by Ella Gonzalez
As students transition into the spring semester, they sometimes arrive with a little inside information about professors and the courses they are taking. Selecting course with the help of the website Rate My Professors has become a common resource for Pepperdine students.
Rate My Professors started in 1999, boasting use by more than four million students every month, according to the website. The world of Rate My Professors is filled with icons bearing green, yellow, and red faces representative of the professor’s scores, as well as a unique set of jargon and criteria for evaluating professors’ effectiveness.
Students may rate their professors on aspects including level of difficulty, overall quality of the professor, whether the professor requires attendance, as well as “hotness,” as indicated by a red chili pepper icon. The website also gives students the opportunity to write additional comments and add up to three tags that “best describe” the professor, including “tough grader,” “gives good feedback,” and “inspirational.”
A website similar to Rate My Professors, Rate My Teachers, focuses on elementary and high school teachers, and is owned by the former owner of Rate My Professors, Patrick Nagle.
Of the more than 1.6 million professors who are rated on the website, Pepperdine has 646 professors listed, including a page for the 3.0-rated “Convo Cation.” On the Pepperdine Rate My Professors page, the accounts aren’t updated to reflect current teaching staff. While 646 professors are listed on the website for Pepperdine, the school’s website lists 208 faculty, 28 of whom do not have a Rate My Professors page. Of the professors that have a page, considerable amounts only have one or two ratings.
How is the Website Used by Pepperdine Students?
Some Pepperdine students use Rate My Professors to aid in their decision for what classes to take for the upcoming semester. Pepperdine sophomore Daniela Yniguez said she uses the website after she selects classes to know what she should expect from a professor. When selecting classes for the spring semester, she said she immediately went to Rate My Professors to read the reviews.
Yniguez, while acknowledging the website’s helpfulness, said she does not give a great deal of credence to the reviews.
“Sometimes I think what people put on it might not be accurate … they might be overreacting to the professor or their ‘hard’ may not be my ‘hard,’ so I kind of take it with a grain of salt,” Yniguez said.
Yniguez said she has found the ratings on Rate My Professors to be relatively accurate, but not in terms of course difficulty. Yniguez said she is more interested in the teacher’s engagement with the class and course material than she is with whether the course is deemed “hard” by her peers.
“The first thing that shows up is how hard the class is, but I don’t really focus on that because I have to take the class anyway,” Yniguez said. “Sometimes I focus on what people will say about the professor, like how they are, their personality, what kinds of tests they give, homework they give, just to kind of give me an idea of what I’m in for.”
Echoing Yniguez’s sentiments, sophomore Georgi Gibson said that while the teacher’s temperament and difficulty of the course are relevant factors in choosing classes, she is more concerned with the teacher’s ability to teach the course material well.
“I want a teacher I can get along with, but at the same time, I’d rather have a mean teacher who can teach than a nice teacher who can’t,” Gibson said.
The Question of Course Difficulty
Charles Choi, assistant professor of Communication, said he became acquainted with Rate My Professors when he was applying for jobs out of graduate school. Choi said that at that time, he had some teaching experience and looked at the evaluations on Rate My Professors to see if he could make adjustments to his teaching. Similar to Yniguez, Choi said he does take the evaluations on the website with a grain of salt, saying that he believes that the comments online tend to come from students on both ends of the extreme: Students who want to publicly announce that they disliked the class and those were biased toward him in a good way, and wanted to celebrate that.
Choi said he thinks that it is rare that students in the middle of these two extremes will comment on the website. Choi also added that he thinks the ratings might be based off how easy or hard the course is, and how much time and effort it takes to be successful in that particular course.
While some students, like Yniguez, do not choose their classes or look at Rate My Professors based solely on the difficulty of the course, a 2010 study by Kaplan found that 46 percent of students who were surveyed took courses based on the “easy grading reputation of the professor.” At Pepperdine, professors on the website who were labeled as “Highest Rated” or “Top Professors,” had comments warning other students that the professor was “difficult” or the course was “demanding.” In the same vein, some professors who were highly rated also had comments that intimated that students’ enjoyment of the class and high rating of the professor stemmed from the lack of difficulty in the course material. A review for a Pepperdine professor in 2003 rated a 4.9 out of 5 reads, “Easiest teacher on the planet!!!!!”
Choi said that if students are choosing courses based on how easy the professor or course is rated online, they are only hurting their own learning experience.
“It’s doing a disservice for students who would normally find themselves in a class where they would be challenged,” Choi said. “They are essentially avoiding those classes where they might be challenged and they are, in some sense, coasting through.”
Gender Differences in Rate My Professors and Course Evaluations
Another criticism of reviews on Rate My Professors is the gender bias that is evident in reviews. Professor Benjamin Schmidt, a professor of history at Northeastern University created a computer software tool where users can enter an adjective and see how often it appears according to gender and discipline on RateMyProfessors.com. Using the tool, negative words appear more often for female professors than male professors.
In course evaluations, both through the institution and on Rate My Professors, students are more likely to focus on a woman’s appearance and personality and on a man’s skills and intelligence. Male professors are more likely to be called “intelligent” or a “genius,” whereas female professors are more likely to be called “annoying,” “bossy,” or “nurturing,” according to Schmidt’s computer software tool.
Distinguished Professor of English Cyndia Clegg said she used to look at the comments on her Rate My Professors page but has since stopped, noting the sexualized and infamous chili pepper icon that stands for a teacher’s purported attractiveness or “hotness,” which suggests a less than serious evaluation of professors is operating on this site.
“It becomes a vehicle for a beauty contest, and the kind of comments that people make have nothing to do with class,” Clegg said.
Clegg said she has definitely received comments on both formal course evaluations as well as Rate My Professors on dress, clothing and demeanor – areas that are commented on with more frequency in reviews for female professors.
Clegg also said she has received lewd comments on formal and informal course evaluations like Rate My Professors. Clegg said the main problem with Rate My Professors is that it invites a judgment that is “less than academic.”
“There’s no question that when reading student comments you can tell whether it’s a male writing them or a female writing them,” Clegg said.
When asked how she deals with these comments, Clegg said she does not immediately read the formal course evaluations through Pepperdine at the end of the semester when they are raw. Rather, she delays reading the evaluations for a few months, citing her perfectionist tendencies.
Clegg said the comments female professors receive are not limited to formal course evaluations and their Rate My Professors pages. Rather, she said these gendered comments are everywhere in the profession and women in academia are often times held to a higher standard, whether it be in publications or academia as a whole.
The Value of Rate My Professors for Students and Professors
While the evaluations boast praise and at times vitriolic criticism (“I didn’t know Napoleon had an evil twin sister,” reads one review of a former Pepperdine professor), some professors, particularly the newer ones, don’t have Rate My Professors pages. However, the feeling of uncertainty that goes along with having a professor who is not listed on the website can be ameliorated by the brave soul who chooses to “add a new professor” to the university’s page.
For some Pepperdine students, part of the comfort of Rate My Professors is being able to know what to expect when they walk into a classroom the first day.
“I would like there to be things for all the professors, just because I’ve never met these people before and sometimes not all my friends or upper-class friends know all the professors either,” Yniguez said.
In spite of the website’s shortcomings, including the failure to include all professors as well as the negative reviews that make some students, like Yniguez, think the student did poorly in the class, the website is still viewed as a valuable tool for students.
“I think it’s valuable, but not for the professors really because it’s not for them,” Yniguez said. “If it had evaluations for all the professors then it would be more helpful, so then anyone could just look up that professor.”
According to the aforementioned Kaplan study, 77 percent of respondents were influenced by “prior student comments about the professor,” when choosing classes. But this still leaves 33 percent of students who are not influenced by Rate My Professors, as evidenced by the words of Gibson who said she does not rely on Rate My Professors when choosing classes, and instead, will talk to her peers who have taken the course.
“Usually I will talk to people I know because I know their learning style, I know mine, so it’s a more reliable source,” Gibson said.
Professor Bryan Keene, an adjunct professor of Art History, wrote in an email that while he can see the website’s value for students, when he was an undergraduate student at Pepperdine, they relied on word of mouth regarding professors and classes.
“From a student’s point of view, I can see how RMP [Rate my Professors] could provide an instant litmus test to see how difficult the prof is or what kind of testing mechanisms s/he uses,” Keene wrote. “RMP was really just getting started when I was an undergraduate student, so we relied on word of mouth.”
Relationship between Rate My Professors and Course Evaluations
Research at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire found that the website is more accurate in ratings than one might think, according to a 2011 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Marc Parry titled “Researchers Rate RateMyProfessors and Find it Useful, if Not Chili-Pepper Hot.” The study, which was co-authored by Dr. April Bleske-Recheck, a professor of psychology at Eau Claire, found that professors with a total of only 10 Rate My Professors evaluations had the “same degree of consensus in their quality ratings” as those with a larger number of 50 evaluations on Rate My Professors. Thus, if students are consistent in their ratings, a consensus can emerge with a small number of evaluations, according to the article. In short, a small number of evaluations on Rate My Professors can be as valuable as a larger number of evaluations on the site.
One of the concerns with Rate My Professors is that the students doing the rating may be biased for or against a particular professor. Recheck wrote in an email that students and administrations need to be cognizant that such bias exists in teacher evaluations as well.
“Students and administrators need to realize that there are various biases in traditional student evaluations of instruction as well as in faculty evaluations of each other’s performance,” Recheck wrote. “Bias is the main reason why tenure/retention/promotion decisions are generally not made on the basis of a single piece of information about a faculty member, but rather they are made on the basis of many pieces of information.”
In response to whether administration in colleges and universities should give credence to Rate My Professors, Recheck wrote in an email that the data could be used wisely as part of the decision when evaluating faculty in conjunction with data from formal student evaluations and faculty-peer observations.
“That way, if there are 15 positive or somewhat positive ratings accompanied by informational comments (“be prepared for a lot of quizzing and article analyses”) and then one bad rating that is accompanied by an emotional rant (“she sucks!”), the outlier rating can be placed into perspective,” Recheck wrote.
Dean Michael Feltner wrote in an email that both himself and other Seaver College leaders do not review websites like Rate My Professors, but instead give weight to formal course evaluations. Because the content of the course evaluations is used to evaluate faculty performance, the data is not widely shared, and therefore not available for students to see, Feltner wrote. In this vein, Rate My Professors remain the primary avenue for students to gain information about the teaching style of professors because there is no formal way through the university.
“The course evaluation process at Seaver College provides important and formative feedback to faculty and also is used in the evaluation of faculty performance,” Feltner wrote. “For this reason, the course evaluation data are not shared broadly with students or the university community.”
In light of this, Dean Feltner wrote that because the information from course evaluations is not shared publicly with students, students should speak with their academic advisors to be better informed on their degree or courses, or contact professors directly if they have any questions about a particular course.
Gibson said that the website might hold some truth in terms of reliability, but that there are other factors that need to be taken into account.
“It’s got pros and cons, if everyone is saying the same thing it must hold some truth,” Gibson said. “But at the same time, a lot of the times there are so many conflicting ideas that you can’t really judge [a professor], especially when they’re teaching different classes and they teach different classes in different ways. There’s a lot to think about when you read it.”
Regarding course evaluations, Choi said the comments he has received on course evaluations have not been significantly different from the comments he has read on Rate My Professors. However, Choi said he lends greater weight to the comments on the formal course evaluations at Pepperdine than the comments online. Anyone can post online at Rate My Professors but only Pepperdine students can fill out teacher evaluations.
Yniguez said filling out course evaluations is a time to reflect on her classes, adding that some professors will encourage students to fill out the course evaluations for extra credit.
“I like doing them too because it made me think more about the class,” Yniguez said. “I usually think that all my classes are fun, but doing the evaluations I kind of think about it more.”
Choi also pointed out that the website fails to measure teacher’s improvement. Like individuals in all professions, Choi said, teachers gradually improve over time. When a professor has an average or “bad” score at the beginning of their career and “good” scores recently, the rating might not be entirely representative of the way the professor teaches today, Choi said. In contrast, Choi said that the course evaluations students fill out are more representative because they are on a “semester-by-semester” basis.
Like Choi, Keene wrote that although he does take comments on the website into account, the student evaluations professors receive are more helpful and often times give a diverse range of opinions with thoughtful suggestions and criticisms.
“Ultimately, I have a hard time taking a site seriously that purports to give insights into a class (teaching style, difficulty, etc.) while also allowing students to assign a hotness quotient to the prof,” Keene wrote.
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