Do professors’ online ratings matter?

Sam Isaacs
Staff Writer

Feedback is important in a university setting. When a professor hands back a test or paper with a grade on it, the assumption is that a student can look at the grade and the critique and learn how to perform better on similar assignments in the future. Sometimes, professors need feedback too.

Many students use services like Rate My Professor. The site, where students review professors on a scale of one to five based on how difficult the professor is, how clearly they explain concepts and other criteria. It’s a way for students to let their voices be heard — but how does a service like Rate My Professor compare to the university-administered teacher evaluations when it comes to implementing the feedback?

Some VCU faculty members are aware of the site. William Henshaw, a chemistry professor, holds a 4.6 overall rating with 48 reviews. He said he has visited the site before.

“I recall glancing at the website years ago when I first heard about its existence just to see what the students were saying about me,” said Henshaw, who said that it’s important for students to be able to engage in discussion about their instructors.

“I do think it is a legitimate tool for students to use as professors, like students vary in their abilities, and this website is one that the student can utilize as an honest, anonymous, open forum to gauge a prospective professor’s abilities and knowledge of the subject,” he said. However, he notes that he doesn’t let what he reads about himself online impact the way he presents information.

“The website does not affect my teaching as every one of my lectures is my best effort to explain the material to my students,” he said.

The site, which allows students to post anonymous reviews of professors along with ratings, has become popular with students for when class registration starts.

“I use it every semester. I always check the reviews of a professor before I enroll in their class,” said Andy Utterback, a history major.

Though Utterback uses the site to look at reviews, he said he had never written one but does fill out the teacher evaluations VCU asks of students at the end of every semester.

Hilary Hambrick, an elementary education major, also uses the site to help decide which courses she will take and with what professors.

“I use it if I’m worried about the subject I’m about to take. It’s very helpful when I use it, and from what I can tell, it is pretty accurate,” she said.

Hambrick also fills out the teacher evaluations, but she said she thinks the site and survey serve different purposes.

“Rate My Professor is a better tool for deciding to enroll. From the teacher and administrators view, evaluations have more of an impact. Admins wouldn’t use Rate My Professor to decide whether or not a teacher gets tenure,” Hambrick said.

According to D’Arcy Mays, the chair of VCU’s statistics department, Rate My Professor can be a useful tool to students, but teacher evaluations are the only official way professors’ performances are judged at VCU.

“We have a set process in how teachers are evaluated and Rate My Professor is not part of that process; it is not as reliable and statistically valid,” said Mays, who also noted that administrators look at the VCU evaluations to provide insight into a professor’s teaching ability and could affect a teacher’s performance reviews or job. He said teachers are reviewed once a year, but in his department, new teachers or grad students get reviewed at the end of their first semester to provide early feedback.

Katherine Bassard, chair of the english department, agreed with Mays. She said Rate My Professor does not affect a professor’s job or evaluation whatsoever in her department.

At the end of each course, VCU asks every student to fill out the anonymous evaluation of the course’s professor. The evaluations are voluntary and over the past two semesters, 138,181 out of 235,275 possible evaluations were filled out, just under 59 percent according to the Center for Teaching Excellence. Mays said this number is higher than many other volunteer surveys he has seen and much higher than the number of reviews posted on Rate My Professor.

Mays also added that based on what he has seen, the nearly 60 percent return is a fairly accurate portrayal of the school as a whole because both good and bad reviews are filled out.

Gaurav Gupta, IT analyst for the Center of Teaching Excellence, said the evaluations used to be physically handed out in classes but have been moved online to save time and money.

“It would cost about $100,000 a year to do the evaluations on paper. Professors would not get the results back until three or four months after exams were over,” he said.

He also said that other universities allow early registration or hide exam grades until the evaluations are filled out. To his knowledge, VCU has never had a policy on making evaluations mandatory.

“Unfortunately, they aren’t mandatory here. The teacher evaluations are part of a long-lasting policy at VCU,” he said.

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