OPINION | Professors must read RateMyProfessors evaluations

Gabe Darley, Staff Writer

Professors must read the honest opinions of their students to be fair teachers. (Gabe Darley)

When registering for classes, many Tulane students employ a common strategy to guide their selections. The website Rate My Professors is an online tool which allows undergraduates to search for an instructor from their school and read reviews from the professor’s past students. 

This website has proven itself time and time again to be an invaluable asset to the greater American collegiate population. Less examined, however, is its possible benefits to college professors themselves. 

A professor’s page on the site includes quantitative information — average overall rating, average difficulty level, the percentage of people who “would take [the course] again” — as well as written, paragraph-style reviews of individual experiences. Both are of paramount importance when making a decision on one’s class schedule; a professor averaging a 1.5-out-of-5 star rating can be the difference between a great semester and four months of endless agony.

It is no secret that Tulane instructors have plenty of room for improvement in the teaching department. The school undoubtedly employs some of the brightest and most experienced minds in the nation. Unfortunately for students, this intelligence does not always translate directly to the ability to effectively relay information to one’s pupils, understand and adapt to learning needs or engage an audience.

Of course, no one is going to raise their hand in the middle of class and tell the calculus professor that, in fact, avoiding eye contact and speaking into the white board for 50 minutes a day is not conducive to learning about double integrals. 

These kinds of conversations about one’s performance as a teacher can be awkward, and a momentary criticism in an in-person public forum will likely lead to embarrassment. Even worse, the words might provoke backlash from a proud or narcissistic professor. One would be hard-pressed to find a student willing to give a professor negative feedback at the risk of dropping a letter grade on the next essay.

Here’s where a third-party reviewing tool might come in handy.

All it takes is a few clicks to find that when given the power of online anonymity, students tend to talk openly and honestly about what is working and what is not. Many of the comments, while sometimes obviously emotionally charged, contain productive criticism that might never be said aloud but could vastly approve a professor’s teaching ability if taken to heart.

Consider these examples from various pages:

“Main problem is boredom. She is completely disengaging.” 

“His handwriting isn’t great so you can’t really see what’s on the board very clearly.”

“Treats office hours as an opportunity to [tell you] how poorly you are doing in the course.”

“He puts too many questions on the tests … so slow test takers suffer.”

All of these excerpts are clearly not things one would call out in the middle of class or even say privately to a professor. But they also share a striking commonality in their constructive nature. If teachers adapted their methods based on these words, the feedback left on these pages could improve the learning experience of generations of students to come.

One might draw a parallel between the reviews on this website and what Tulane calls “course evaluations,” anonymous surveys Tulane students complete at the end of a semester to rate the effectiveness of a course and its professor. While the mission of this process is very similar to that of Rate My Professors, course evaluations tend to fall flat due to a couple key factors.

Foremost is that course evaluations still fall under the official Tulane system. Though not explicitly branded, they are written, organized and evaluated by Tulane. Many students, due to a distrust of that same system, might feel a distrust of this methodology. 

For example, although promised anonymity through these surveys, the online interface clearly has personal identification measures in place, like showing one’s class roster to make a survey selection. 

Additionally, there are certain cultural expectations that students fill out the surveys that may skew data. In their eagerness to receive feedback, many professors incentivize completing course evaluations by promising rewards — a cancelled class or a dropped quiz — if the entire class does so. This can mean half the class clicking through a default full-point rating just to get the survey done. 

Along with scoring a few easy points, knowledge that the evaluations can factor into contract renewals or employment status can make sympathetic students inflate professors’ reviews. Most people don’t want to get their instructors fired.

These barriers tend not to exist in a disinterested platform. Honesty flows freely in the world of mediator-website reviews. Professors who truly want to hone their craft and deliver worthwhile lectures and assignments should look outside of the framework the university has provided. 

Inspiring young minds to love learning and engage in the material is hard work, but there is no way to get it right without actively listening to their constituents and changing behavior. It just might make a difference for the next group of students who walks through the classroom door.