By Ali Valdrighi
RateMyProfessors.com has retained its controversial status since its creation in 1999 by John Swapceinski. It claims to be the “largest online destination for professor ratings” with 14 million ratings, 1.3 million professors and 7,000 schools.
For those unfamiliar with RateMyProfessors.com, the site uses a 1-5 scale to evaluate professors in three major categories: easiness, helpfulness, and clarity. Students can also rate professors as “Hot or Not.” Finally, students may leave comments on the professor’s teaching ability. Students are discouraged from providing personal details about the professor and the site has the right to remove comments considered inappropriate or libelous.
Many researchers have studied RateMyProfessors.com to analyze different psychosocial phenomenon. Studies on the validity of the site have yielded mixed results. In a 2004 study published in Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, James Felton, Peter Koper, John Mitchell, and Michael Stinson discovered a “halo effect” in which easiness and sexiness, rather than teaching ability, correlated most highly with positive ratings. On the other hand, a 2008 study by James Otto, Douglas Sanford and Douglas Ross in Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education found evidence that clarity and helpfulness were highly correlated with positive professor ratings, which demonstrated that ratings may relate to student learning. Finally, Kemal Turhan, Fusun Yaris, and Esref Nural reported in a 2005 study in Advances in Health Science Education that there was no statistical difference between instructor ratings in 2002 and 2003 which seemed to indicate that site ratings did not change instructor performance.
RateMyProfessors.com’s lack of impact on instructor performance raises the question of its relevance. President of Pomona College, David Oxtoby (ΦBK, Harvard University, 1974), who also teaches an environmental chemistry course, said he did not have firsthand experience with the site and had not checked his own ratings. As an administrator, Oxtoby said he would never use the site to determine tenure appointments or promotions. “If we were hiring, I cannot say that someone might not look at RateMyProfessor.com, but it would not be done in any official way,” Oxtoby said. “We would not be using it as a factor in the decision because there are pretty serious questions of how statistically valid it is.”
Oxtoby’s main concern is the site’s potential for bias and the teaching qualities it emphasizes. “What we care about is what students learn, not if they like the professor. Beyond that, it selects for a certain type of student active in social media, and I do not think it is representative of student opinion,” he said. For hiring and tenure decisions, Oxtoby instead finds student in-class evaluations and letters written by student volunteers more helpful.
Likewise, as many colleges and universities begin to create their own rating systems, RateMyProfessors.com is becoming less popular with students. Pomona College student Susan Nussbaum said she rarely uses the site. “Pomona has its own site which is more helpful because it rates the classes, not just professors,” she said. Similarly, New York University student Ashby Vose said RateMyProfessor.com has been replaced with NYU’s own website. “We have to evaluate our professors and that goes into a data base which we can see with our NYU log in,” Vose said. “It is less biased because everyone is required to fill out an evaluation.”
However, when schools do not have their own rating system, RateMyProfessors.com use is more prevalent. “It is usually the first thing people do when they look for classes,” University of California at Santa Cruz student Jenn Goishi said. Yet, Goishi has experienced problems with the site’s reliability. “My housemate and I found a class that was supposedly really good and our teacher even had a hotness rating. But when we got to the class, our teacher was 70 years old,” Goishi said. “On top of that, the class was definitely not as good as it sounded.”
While initially innovative, RateMyProfessors.com is gradually being replaced by systems created locally at colleges and universities. “People with extremely positive or negative experiences are more likely to use RateMyProfessors.com and few people actually write reviews,” Nussbaum said. “School sponsored websites tend to have a greater number of responses and more accurate ratings.”
Ali Valdrighi is a senior at Pomona College majoring in neuroscience. Pomona College is home to the Gamma of California Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.