External faculty evaluation Web sites are gaining ground—and massive amounts of data.
By Gail Braccidiferro MacDonald

What qualities are the essence of a top-notch university professor? “Enthusiastic.” “Fun.” “Interesting.” “Cares about students.” These attributes are listed in student reviews of America’s number one professor for 2009, as determined by the Web site ratemyprofessor.com. Other students made these comments about the same instructor: “Very easy A,” “Class can be boring,” and “Open book quizzes.” The site, which has just released a free iPhone application, gave this professor its top honors based on 123 reviews, including a handful that appeared to be exact duplicates. The number two slot went to a professor about whom one student wrote, “I didn’t learn a thing, that class was the worst.”

Such is the nebulous and sometimes contradictory nature of professor-rating Web sites. Since about a decade ago, when such sites became the Internet version of the time-honored student-tostudent advice grapevine, some faculty members have worried about their implications, others have chuckled at their absurdities and shallowness, and still others have sought revenge in video rants on YouTube or mtvU’s Professors Strike Back, also viewable at ratemyprofessor.com.

At least one of these sites, MyEdu.com, an offshoot of the now defunct site pickaprof.com, has transformed itself from a vehicle for student gushing or venting to an extensive database of college-planning information. Other sites have popped up to provide similar services focused on individual institutions.

As online evaluations thrive, colleges and universities are relying more heavily on nontenured, short-term, graduate student, and part-time instructors. They also are giving more serious consideration to student evaluations of teaching, particularly those that use internally produced evaluation forms, when making decisions about hiring, teaching assignments, and promotions.

Consumer Model

For an annual membership fee of twenty dollars or less, depending on the extent of the services chosen, MyEdu.com offers both students and their parents the ability to search for colleges, explore a variety of degrees, and get precise information on individual professors’ grading histories, class retention rates, workloads, and the number and cost of textbooks and class fees. MyEdu.com is still compiling its database, which relies on information that it obtains from U.S. colleges and universities. It now claims a membership of two million students at 750 colleges. It seeks to become a one-stop shopping site for everything college—from choosing a school and analyzing the marketability of specific degree programs to comparing professors’ popularity among students and navigating college- to- college transfers.

At the same time, internal Web sites are also being developed to offer students similar types of information specific to the institution in which they are already enrolled. The University of Connecticut, for example, recently joined a group of thirty colleges and universities nationwide offering a service called Courserank with which students can research peer reviews, course workloads, and grading histories.

As higher education administrations embrace the concept of such sites, faculty members worry about the impact on academic freedom.

“For part-time faculty, there is a real chilling effect,” said John W. Curtis, director of research and public policy at the AAUP.

“[Nontenured faculty members] are concerned that if they get even one negative evaluation, they just won’t be rehired, and they won’t even know why. This hurts students because faculty members become afraid to challenge students and avoid controversial issues. . . . Evaluations really should be more formative, that is, strive to help a teacher improve.”

Is there anything formative about comments such as “class can be boring” or “basically the epitome of a good professor”? What can faculty members learn from such comments? Can they use them to improve their teaching?

“Students say they do look at all these measures, and they think they are savvy enough to interpret the student culture and weigh it, but the same professor can rank very high and very low” on the same rating site or when being rated by different students from the same class, said Carol Simpson Stern, a professor of performance studies at Northwestern University and former chair of the AAUP’s Committee on Teaching, Research, and Publication.

When tenured positions were more numerous at colleges and universities, faculty members were valued as much for the strength of their research, knowledge in their fields, and prestige among their peers as they were for their classroom capabilities, Stern said. Occasional cutting remarks from students on evaluations didn’t carry inordinate weight with professors and administrators. This has changed.

“Vulnerable professors are aware they could be caught up in this and cut up in it,” Stern said. “All student evaluations are measures of perceptions. Their ability to rank and evaluate is really questionable—how are they qualified to do this?”

Students do not appear worried by such concerns. In studies of campuses throughout the country, they report that when deciding what classes to register for they consider postings on rating Web sites or, in universities where such information is available, on posted data gleaned from internal student evaluations of professors.

Cheri Bergeron, marketing director for MyEdu.com, said this is as it should be: students should be viewed as consumers, and professors should care deeply about what their students think. Students, or at least their parents, are paying tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on higher education, and their thoughts and opinions deserve respect. Bergeron said all students are required to take some courses in which they are not particularly interested. While they might be willing to take a class with a professor who has a tough reputation if the course is in their major, students want a chance to earn higher grades in unrelated courses so that they don’t put their grade point averages at risk.

“One student said to us, ‘Because I’ve worked with you, I’ve not gotten one bad professor,’” Bergeron said. “We are pro-student. Students take five or six classes that they really don’t need, and when higher education is so high cost, we arm students with options. We advocate for students.”

Impact of Evaluations

Even before the professor-rating Web sites became popular, the impact of student evaluations of professors was the subject of academic discussion and study. A sociology professor in 2006 created a fictitious colleague who, although he did not exist, earned plenty of comments and ratings on a Web site. That “professor” is still on the site. A 2008 study by Guy A. Boysen at the State University of New York College at Fredonia, published in Teaching of Psychology, found a correlation between the students who earned low grades and those who gave low evaluations.

Some studies have found, however, that many students take their ratings of professors quite seriously and that ratings posted on sites such as ratemyprofessor.com can be as valid as the end-ofcourse evaluations issued directly by a college or university.

A recent study by Valeri R. Helterbran, associate professor of professional studies in education at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, concluded from evaluations of education majors that students appeared willing to work harder for teachers they felt cared about students and student achievement. “This information, if used sensibly, provides the teacher-educator with a window into his or her teaching with the prospects of strengthening professional practice,” Helterbran wrote.

Other studies have concluded that students are more apt to attend classes and rate professors highly if those instructors are good-looking. Daniel S. Hamermesh, a professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin, studied the correlation between an instructor’s physical beauty and age and student attendance. In short, he found that “hot” generally brought students to class. He argued that external professor-rating Web sites are not particularly useful because they are based on small samplings of evaluations. Still, he firmly believes that students should be armed with as much information as possible and that his colleagues are needlessly worried about the potentially negative ramifications of student evaluations.

“Within a set of electives, students will look at whether they can get a good grade or not,” Hamermesh said. “As an economist, I feel—why not have more information? I don’t think we need to have people censoring the information.”

Long before students turned to the Internet to vent their frustrations with their professors, Hamermesh said his university set up a “slam desk” at the end of each semester. Students were invited to write uncensored comments about their classes, instructors, grading, fairness, and whatever else concerned them on a desk covered in butcher paper. He said that even in this free-form context, many comments were insightful and useful.

As for the notion that it is dangerous for such unfettered information to become a factor in promotion and tenure decisions, Hamermesh said that students are important and should have a say in who teaches them in the classroom.

“Students have fewer qualms about saying something negative,” he said, comparing student evaluations to peer evaluations advocated by some faculty members. “The nontenure trend is unfortunate. But I have to give administrators some credit for being able to see through the shallowness of student comments . . . . I find all this worry to be too much. It’s really saying that our colleagues are fools and the students are fools. I say teach your course the way you want to teach it, don’t take it all so seriously. I think people are overestimating academics’ insecurity here.”

And Bergeron said the information MyEdu.com is putting at students’ and parents’ fingertips is in line with the current public demand for more transparency from all institutions, from government to all levels of education.

“The Internet is all about transparency,” she said. “Schools should be more transparent and serve their students.”

Gail Braccidiferro MacDonald is an assistant professor in residence in the journalism department at the University of Connecticut. She is a longtime freelance writer for numerous newspapers and magazines and a former newspaper reporter. Her e-mail address is [email protected].