Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Buzz on RateYourStudents Weblog

I first heard about the educational ratings weblog Rate Your Students back in March. The professor-operators who launched the site were responding to what they thought was the inherent unfairness of the popular teacher ratings website, One of professors at Rate Your Students, in an interview with the online magazine Inside Higher Ed, said he really disliked the unfairness of RateMyProfessors anonymity: "We love our jobs....But we are reacting to something we see as unfair." His goal with Rate Your Students was to give professors who submit posts a chance to respond to their evaluations and let off some steam: "When we have the occasional moment of vent — that makes me a better teacher."

Some of the posts at Rate Your Students are pretty unusual. One professor from Wiscosin admitted that he hated his job, and stated openly that he should be doing something else. He was stuck, though, living with the consequences of his own poor choices, including perhaps his decision to major in the liberal arts. Other posts are more upbeat though: One pragmatic professor indicated that while he'd had some problems, he loved imparting specialized knowledge and got a kick out of recruiting students into his discipline's major concentration.

I'm a pretty tough professor, so I can sympathize with other professors who are unhappy with their online reviews. RateMyProfessors' evaluation criteria are largely flawed. Students rate teachers on the basis of easiness, helpfulness, and clarity. Obviously, any average student slacker who gets a lousy grade can take it out on his professor. One twist on the RateMyProfessors site is the "hotness" index, allowing students to click a jalepeno icon if their teacher gets them going. The site can be useful. But the anonymity of the postings permits some absolutely horrible comments and attacks to be posted, and this is quite frequent, all the while largely protected by free speech guarantees.

A real problem with most types of anonymous student evaluations, especially the formal, quantitative surveys administrators use to evaluate probationary faculty, is that they force professors to fear the wrath of unhappy students. The evaluation system turns students into consumers, and grades become the currency indicating the educational "value" of their teachers, and by extenstion their college. Professors in turn learn to "game" the system, giving out grades like candy, becoming pals with their students, and (most problematically) lowering standards to appease more and more students either unwilling or unable to perform at an advanced academic level. Paul Trout, a Professor of English at Montana State University, has written a lot about this -- indeed, he's had something of a cottage industry with his criticism of students rating professors. Check out his article, "Flunking the Test: The Dismal Record of Student Evalutions."


College Misery said...

Thanks for the shout-out. We do enjoy our time over here at RYS, and always welcome ideas, opinions, etc.

Donald Douglas said...

Thank you for the feedback. Feel free to forward along my comments if you'd like. I'd like to build up some readership! And keep up the good work you're doing at RYS!!