It’s time to pick your classes for next semester! After figuring out what you need, you might start filtering by days and times – maybe weeding out those Friday classes or 8 a.m.s. And chances are your next step might include a visit to Rate My Professors.com to check out your options.
But wait . . . before you click, have you ever thought about how reliable the information you find there is? The site is so heavily used (according to a recent article, as high as 80 million views during registration times) that you would assume it’s full of valuable information that can help you make informed decisions about which classes to take (and which to avoid).
But although so many students turn to the site for answers, only a tiny fraction are actually posting to the site, making the feedback unreliable and potentially misleading. The best feature of the site – that it’s completely user-driven, so you get direct unfiltered student reviews – is also exactly what undermines its usefulness, since the response rate for such sites is typically very low.
Think about it – you may use the site all the time, but do you take the time to go on and post a review for each of your classes each semester? Usually, those who are motivated to post either absolutely adore their professor or, more often, are unhappy with their grade or otherwise disgruntled (which, by the way, in addition to the Hatemyprofessor
nickname, has spawned MTV’s always entertaining “Professors Strike Back” videos – kind of like a nerdier version of “celebrities read mean tweets”).
The problem with this user-driven format is that it tends to leave out the reviews from all those who are not at those two extremes. And there are no checks in place to make sure the reviewer attended class, did all the assigned work, or even was a student in the course – anyone can create an account and post. The power of influence contained in those 80 million views ends up in the hands of a very small minority of students (and who may not necessarily be the most informed about the full experience of the class).
Over 2800 TU professors are reviewed, but guess how many of those have 100 or more reviews? 42. That’s it. And only ONE of those has over 200 ratings. The other 2,772 instructors have numbers of reviews in the double or single digits only.
So to investigate how useful these small numbers of reviews might be, I decided to try using myself as an example. I’ve been teaching here since 1999, with as many as 12 classes per year and 35 students per course. Conservatively, that means I’ve taught 5000 students (likely more), and yet my reviews total . . . 30. That’s right – thirty, out of my thousands of students.
Digging a little deeper, let’s look at my most-often taught class as an example: I’ve taught History of Modern Design online 6 times (totaling over 200 students) since I redesigned it in 2013, and yet I have only 1 review posted for that class. Would you really want to make your decision to take the class based on one person’s opinion?
Much better to choose your courses based on other factors that are more concrete, and give the professor a chance. If you’re not sure about a course, email the instructor ahead of time and see if you can get a copy of the syllabus to see if the class looks like it would be a good fit for you. And we have a generous week-and-a-half long add/drop period, so nothing is set in stone – you’ll have several class meetings (at least) to make your own decision about an instructor.
Rate my Professors.com seems to be here to stay, and students will inevitably be drawn to it. But with this more realistic view of what the site actually offers, try to take what you read there with a very large grain of salt.
Or in the words of a great New York Times piece about the site, consider it “a lovable relic of Web 1.0. With more than 10 million quirky, untrustworthy reviews, it’s going strong. Read it like a novel, watch it like MTV, study it like sociology. Just don’t base any real decisions on it.”
Dr. Emily Halligan
Undergraduate Academic Advising Center