Classroom Reviews in the Digital Age

Kevin Carpenter   Contributing Writer

College students have been sharing war stories about professors good and bad since there have been students and professors, but in May of 1999 the internet delivered a streamlined way to share these stories.Ratemyprofessors.com (RMP) is an online platform that allows students to shower their professors with praise or warn fellow students picking courses of a difficult class to come.

RMP allows students to grade their teachers by using a variety of metrics. The overall score is a numerical value for “overall quality”. The rating ranges from one to five, one for extremely poor quality and five for high quality. The overall rating dictates the icon next to each professor’s name: A green smiling face for highly rated professors and a red frowning face for the poorly rated ones.

“Students at Eastern regularly make class scheduling decisions based on the reviews they read at RMP, but like Yelp, Google and Facebook, online reviews suffer from a polarized input bias.”

In addition to the general quality, reviewers are asked if they would take the professor a second time, to numerically score course difficulty, if a professor is strict on attendance or uses the required textbooks regularly. Reviewers can add extra tags if something about the professor stands out such as, “inspirational,” “boring,” or “gives no feedback”. The overall result is an average score compiled from all reviews.

“I love it, I use it every semester before I pick my classes,” said Ashley Woodward, a senior here at Eastern. “I look through the reviews and I see the positives and negatives about each professor and I make my choices based on that.”

Students at Eastern regularly make class scheduling decisions based on the reviews they read at RMP, but like Yelp, Google and Facebook, online reviews suffer from a polarized input bias.  Students who feel strongly about a product (or professor) are more likely to take the initiative to write a review, resulting in a bi-modal distribution of opinions.
Mathematics professor Anthony Aidoo noted that educational techniques can be subjective. What works for one student may not work for another. Aidoo commented on how sometimes, there is a method to a professor’s madness: “Your best professor is the one who teaches nothing. Who comes to class and just gets you confused…That is when you sit down and begin to actually study. But the one who comes and explains everything you think you understand, you don’t go beyond what they present to you in the classroom.”

Professors who are brave enough to look at their own reviews might do so out of a morbid sense of curiosity or an interest in how they rank among their peers. Amid the thunderous sound of construction just a few yards outside of her window, English Department Chair Barbara Little Liu commented on how she uses RMP, saying, “Every once and a while I do look at my ratings, and my colleagues’ ratings and try to compare myself to other people in the English department. It’s probably not the smartest thing to do, but I do.”

Dr. Little Liu pointed out that RMP has only digitized the process of information sharing. Before the age of the internet, warnings about problem professors or easy A’s were still being passed around verbally. However, Dr. Little Liu commented, “What’s interesting and new about it [RMP] is the fact that the professor can overhear those conversations in ways that we never could before.”

While the information gleaned from an RMP review could be enlightening, Eastern professors put much more stock in their end of semester student evaluations. The student opinion surveys are a more comprehensive and balanced way for a teacher to assess their teaching because it takes every student into account rather than the most polarized among them. Additionally, Dr. Little Liu noted that RMP reviews lack the kind of specificity needed to make a substantive change to teaching methods, where a student evaluation can be incredibly specific.

However, a course evaluation survey can leave teachers with a false impression. The anonymous nature of a digital platform allows students a kind of “savage honesty”, according to Eastern alumnus and IT department employee Andrew Johnson. “I’ve written a lot of very bad course evaluations for some very poor professors and the thought is always in the back of my mind that, obviously, they’re going to recognize my handwriting”. Johnson theorizes that the kinds of critiques professors read on their course evaluations will begin to look much more like RMP reviews if the course evaluations ever become digital.

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