Every semester there comes a time when students must decide what courses they are going to take in the future, sending students scrambling to find the best professors.
On the popular online site RateMyProfessors.com, that search takes the form of a rating system in which teachers are graded based on a few distinct categories.
RateMyProfessors is a popular online site that allows anonymous reviewers the chance to grade their instructors on easiness, helpfulness and clarity. The site claims to be “the largest online destination for professor ratings.”
But how do the graders feel about being graded?
A site of highs and lows
RateMyProfessors operates on a system of anonymous posting. These posts allow the rater to grade the teacher in three categories and, when combined with other ratings, create an average overall rating for the professor.
RateMyProfessors site says that this allows students “to figure out who’s a great professor and who’s one you might want to avoid.”
However, several of TCU’s highest ranked professors on the site question the validity of the site for a few different reasons.
Carrie Currier, professor of political science, said the site creates the problem because it lacks ratings from average students.
“If you really like somebody, you’re going to make the effort to go do it. If you really hate somebody you’re going to make the effort to go do it,” she said. “You really don’t get the average person that feels like they need to go in and say something.”
Doug Ingram, an astronomy professor, agreed with Currier. He said the site tends to provide just one far side of opinion or the complete opposite.
“For RateMyProfessors, they have to have some kind of incentive to go there. If they are just indifferent, why bother?” he said. “There are so many other things they could be doing with their lives. So you are getting the extremes.”
However, some of TCU’s professors said they find the website to be a useful source of information.
Professor of social work David Jenkins said although he would take the ratings with a grain of salt, they have a purpose for students.
“I think it fills a need. Students want to understand what this person might be like before they buy into that course,” Jenkins said. “I think it’s a source of information.”
Keith Whitworth, a professor in TCU’s sociology department, said he used to refer to the site for a lot for feedback on his teaching and he used to tell his students to go rate him.
“There’s probably not a perfect measurement tool to evaluate professors,” Whitworth said. “I think from a sociological perspective, it’s not the perfect tool by any means, but it gives you enough feedback to be able to understand if you’re hitting the mark or if you’re way off.”
Adjunct faculty member and professor of finance Bart Tucker said he could see a problem in the way the site might entice users to go for the teachers with the highest score of easiness, thus providing them with a lesser education.
“When I look back on some of my professors, some of them were really hard and, at the time, I really did not like the fact that I was taking them,” he said. “But looking back I think, ‘I’m glad I did that.’”
Top-flight TCU teachers
According to RateMyProfessor’s 2012-2013 Top Schools lists, TCU has the 13th best professors in the country. This ranking puts the Horned Frog faculty just behind Texas A&M (9th) and a few spots ahead of the University of Texas at Austin (15th).
TCU’s top professors attribute their high ratings to a variety of different reasons.
Education professor Michelle Bauml is TCU’s top-ranked professor, sporting a perfect 5.0 rating in overall quality, helpfulness and clarity.
Bauml said she thinks the high ranking could be a result of her effort to bring personal experiences and a positive attitude to her classroom.
“I try to bring in my own experience. I was an elementary teacher for nine years so I have lots of stories,” she said. “I think I’m approachable. I think that I ask them questions regularly about how they’re doing in general.”
Bauml said she also thinks her rating is a bit inflated due to having just 11 ratings. She said she teaches junior-level education classes in which students realize what she is teaching is vital to their future careers.
Tucker also has a perfect 5.0 ranking. He said the ratings don’t even cross his mind when teaching.
“I teach a class because I enjoy teaching the class. I just teach what I think they need to know when they get out in the real world about insurance,” Tucker said. “I don’t really do it as a popularity contest.”
Ingram credits the methods he brings to the classroom for his high score on the site.
“I try to be funny, I try to be inspiring so students will have the incentive to work on it outside of class,” he said. “I feel free to have more fun in lecture because I don’t see it as critical in the way that I think most people see it.”
Ingram said that instead of structuring his class around the lecture period, he focuses on fostering work outside of class with peers. He said he believes that is where the majority of student learning and retention comes from.
Jenkins, who sports a score of 4.5, said his sense of humor and a relaxed attitude in the classroom are what helps him relate to students.
“I try to be a fairly engaging professor. I try to make the classroom enjoyable and I get to know their names,” he said. “I think a good sense of humor doesn’t hurt at all. I laugh my way through a lot of things.”
The feelings of feedback
Whitworth said although he used to ask his students to rate him on the site, he has not checked his scores for around five years.
“The ratings were positive, but every once in a while there were ratings that were negative,” he said. “To some degree I have thin skin, and I didn’t like to read those even though they were helpful.”
Despite the few negative reviews, Whitworth said the positive comments on the site have made him feel like he is effectively teaching his discipline.
“It’s kind of a feel-good experience to hear that, because it does validate that I’m doing something right in the course,” he said. “Any time students feel like sociology meets them where they are, that to me is what I’m trying to accomplish.”
Bauml agreed, saying that seeing her students enjoy the coursework was gratifying to her.
“Education is my field. When I hear positive student feedback, that just makes me proud and excited for them that they are having an experience here at TCU that is enriching for them,” she said.
Ingram said that he pays close attention to the negative comments, but the positive ones validate his career choice.
“This is what I’ve always wanted to do for a living, and I’m glad that there’s some evidence that I’m good at it,” he said.
Jenkins said he thinks he knows where his positive comments are stemming from.
“I pay them high amounts of money to write nice things, so that helps,” he said, with a joking smile on his face.
For an extended interview on an odd feature that RateMyProfessors.com offers, click here.