I teach writing to college students, and I’m always searching for ways to improve my teaching technique. I go out of my way to read articles about pedagogy, watch movies about good and bad teachers, and listen to my fellow professors talk about what makes a great teacher. When I’m giving instruction, I also keep tabs on the facial expressions and body language of my students to see if they are paying attention. When students lean forward over their desks, pens in hand to take notes, I assume that my lessons are engaging. When students fling their heads back, close their eyes, and snore, I assume that it’s time to switch things up.
Occasionally I pause during lessons and ask students if the instruction is getting through, then I listen to what they have to say. Students are not always forthcoming about their true thoughts and feelings. They avert their eyes when I ask questions about my teaching effectiveness, but I don’t know why. They are paying good money to sit in their chairs, but they appear to be fearful of providing input. Thankfully, I recently taught one student who was willing to take me aside and inform me about the website ratemyprofessors.com and how it offers professors input on their teaching styles and effectiveness.
What a great idea. No doubt the computer programming geniuses who came up with this site are now kicking back in Boca Raton drinking Mai Tais beneath a shady veranda. Good for them. I wish I could do the same, but without the required computer programming skills or creative ideas, I can only stick to my teaching gig and hope to take advantage of the information on their site. To do so, I figure that all that’s required is to read through the tabulated data, digest it, and recalibrate my methods. No longer will I need to spend time trying to interpret student body language and facial expressions, the site will give me the feedback I need to make the necessary teaching adjustments.
As I’ve been teaching for six years, and I’ve engaged maybe 1400 students over that time, I expected that a visit to the site would contain a wealth of data to draw from. And sure, the students might be critical of me, but I determined that if I went to the site and considered the feedback carefully, I couldn’t help but learn and improve. So, despite possessing what I would consider a healthy attitude toward criticism, I cannot tell a lie. I was disappointed when I visited ratemyprofessors.com, and instead of the happy avatar that so many professors receive next to their names, my name was accompanied by a sarcastic smirk. Appropriate I guess, considering my personality, but not the desired outcome for a professor who hopes to provide useful instruction in writing and composition. Next to my sarcastic smirk was my rating, 2.6, an average of the two qualities that ratemyprofessor.com and students find essential in a good teacher: “helpfulness,” for which I earned a 2.9, and “clarity,” for which I gained a lowly 2.4.
As I see it, on a scale of 4.0, this 2.6 would be a slightly respectable C plus or B minus, but ratemyprofessor.com ranks professors on a scale of 0 to 5. By my calculations, this would give me the grade of a solid C or C minus at best. A C minus, according to my university’s grading system is not even passing. Should a student earn a C minus or lower in one of my courses, they would have to repeat the class. As my grade was a C minus, I wondered if I should be offering students a second attempt at my course on my own time and my own dime.
“Okay fine,” I said to myself after seeing the site and my score. I did not visit ratemyprofessor.com just to find out my grade. I am not much of a believer in grades anyhow. I enjoy learning and grades simply indicate that there is room for improvement. My enthusiasm for the site began to return when I saw that some of my former students had left comments, and this is exactly the kind of information I was hoping for. In the comment section, I anticipated finding suggestions on how to bring up my low scores. And so I read. A few of the words that stood out included the descriptors “monotone,” “boring,” “disorganized,” and “Nice man but don’t take this professor!”
How disappointed I was once again to discover more negative information but to gain no advice on how to improve my instruction. Why not? Wasn’t that what the site was for? Isn’t that what evaluations are all about? Not just to provide a score to measure achievement but to offer suggestions on how to improve. I didn’t feel like the comments were offering me much help, so I stepped away from the site for a while and began to take an inventory of both myself and how my students perceive me. After some reflection, I settled on a few ways that the site and its student contributors could be of more aid, not only to me, but to the thousands of other professors who come searching for ways to advance their teaching.
To begin with, if I were on the staff of ratemyprofessor.com, I would ask student contributors to make their comments more specific. It’s difficult to know what to do with a comment like “boring.” Could my students please recount the circumstances of their boredom? Maybe students could tell me what I was talking about during these dull moments. I am often amazed that an entire classroom of students prefers to subject themselves to a boring lecture rather than rise up and revolt or at least demonstrate that they already understand the material and then request that more advanced topics be addressed.
As regards the comment that I am “monotone,” if students are suggesting I take a drama course to become more animated, I wish they would just come out and say so. They might even recommend one or two drama courses that they think would be useful. As to the comment “disorganized,” if they would like me to enroll in a management course or even work toward an MBA, I wish they would say that. Students should know, however, that I am an adjunct professor on a low salary and my university does not offer stipends for adjunct career enrichment.
Considering my circumstances, students would help me more if they could use their experience with successful professors, describe the techniques of those professors, compare those techniques to mine, and make suggestions on how I should revise my methods. As I spend many hours in class asking students to sharpen their persuasive skills, why couldn’t students jot down a few notes, schedule conferences after class, and use our conferences to persuade me to not only become a more effective teacher but show me how this might be accomplished.
As it stands, it’s difficult to tell from the ratemyprofessor.com comments what students believe makes a good professor. I agree that the goal of every teacher should be to get a 5 rating, so I took a look at a few teachers who won this coveted score. As I read through their reviews, I notice that those teachers with scores of 5 are often said to be interesting storytellers and easy graders. They don’t assign homework, rarely take role, and let students turn papers in at any time they please.
Already I am at a disadvantage here. Maybe I’m just making excuses, but I’m a slow grader, and if I didn’t give deadlines, I don’t think I could survive the rush of papers sure to come all at once at the end of a semester. I also don’t think there’s much advantage to students never attending class. What if they don’t know the material before they write the papers? This would make writing the papers very hard.
On the matter of homework, I have to assign it on occasion. Otherwise I wouldn’t have anything to talk about in the next class session. Consistently planning classes and doing all the talking is hard. Assigning homework gives me something to fall back on. If requiring students to come to class and assigning homework are the things preventing me from getting a high score on ratemyprofessor.com, I’m afraid that I’ll never be much more than a C professor.
“amazing class,” reads a review for one top-rated professor, “i dont think there was 1 class that he didnt let us out early. he cancelled the last 8 classes or so of the year. in total he probably cancelled about 14 classes, including individual meeting times. there are 4 papers which he clearly outlines the criteria for. best teacher at towson.”
Should the ratemyprofessor.com site deign to take any suggestions to help me improve as a teacher, one suggestion that I believe could raise the quality of student comments would be requiring students to provide a name and email address when they make their ratings. This way, if I don’t understand their comments, I could prepare follow-up questions about how I failed in my teaching and email the student. The student could then provide additional feedback and much-appreciated insight on how I should teach.
In my experience as a grader, whenever I know that I might have to face a student who will ask follow-up questions, I tend to be more thorough in my initial comments. Rather than making snap judgments like telling students that a paper “sucks” or “stinks,” I will often attempt to point out how a problem might be fixed. If the problems in the paper are too many, I might even ask a student to rewrite the paper or come and talk with me. As the student knows my name and how to get in touch, gaining clarification to make the necessary adjustments is much easier.
Aside from the advantages of providing contact info and allowing me to be on a first name basis with my student raters, another area where ratemyprofessor.com could be more helpful is in offering some rigorous statistical information. As it stands, all the statistics for the various courses I teach are compiled into a single score. Since I usually teach two courses, Business Writing and Freshman English Composition, why should this be?
I’m certain that I teach one of these courses better than the other, but the site does not make any distinction. Instead, ratings for both of my courses are lumped together. It would be far more useful to know which course I should be working harder at. For professors who teach up to four different courses, I don’t see how an aggregate rating for all four could be helpful.
Another instructive statistic would be an average rating for all teachers at my university who teach the same course as I do. While I understand that we all share the 0 to 5 rating scale, it’s still hard to know how I stack up to other professors teaching the same course. Having an average or mean score would more accurately tell me where I fit in among my colleagues.
Let’s say the mean for the Freshman English Composition course at my university is 2.5 and I rate a 2.6, then I would know that I don’t need to work on that course as much as my Business Writing course where the mean is 4.2 but my score is 2.9. And should the ratemyprofessor.com programmers decide to calculate these means, it would also be helpful to have mean scores for the categories of “helpfulness,” “clarity,” and “hotness.”
In its current incarnation, ratemyprofessor.com does contain a lot of raw data, but it doesn’t offer many useful ways of looking at it. Unless I take time to import all of the site’s numbers into my own Excel spreadsheet—not only my personal numbers but the numbers for all professors teaching the same courses as me—the benefits of the site are minimal. And yet, compiling and differentiating numbers in just this manner, I should think, is the sought after thrill of every computer programmer. And isn’t compiling big data the main advantage of sites such as this? Why can’t the exacting scientific researchers at mtvU, who own ratemyprofessor.com, employ a couple of computer science majors to expand their code and do higher education a solid?
Speaking of how much effort goes into the site, why does ratemyprofessor.com include no category for a teacher’s effort? Effort could be added to each of the categories: for instance, effort in clarity, effort in helpfulness, and effort in attempting to be hot. Or effort might even comprise a separate category. If a teacher is not very good or very hot, which sometimes happens, but he does put in a lot of effort, why shouldn’t he get credit for trying?
I can understand a low rating for teachers who never come to class or who sit at their desks for fifty minutes checking their cell phones or who even fall asleep during lessons. But teachers who seem to have made an attempt to comprehend the material they are teaching, who attempt to relay that material, clearly or otherwise, and who sweat over student questions even though they are unable to answer, shouldn’t those teachers get some special consideration?
Which brings me to the all-important “hotness” category. I understand that I am not hot and that I rate no chili peppers on ratemyprofessors.com, but I do what I can. I have been told by my wife that I do look good in a certain purple pullover, so I wear my purple pullover to class as much as I can. Students don’t seem to notice, or if they do, I still don’t rate. Other items I have less control over. Sadly, I am not cut, and my features are not very symmetrical, one side of my face drooping more than the other. And who could not fail to notice, and be somewhat put off by, my baldness. Okay, no excuses. But some baldies have been considered hot: for instance, Samuel L. Jackson, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Larry David, Bernie Sanders, Ben Bernanke, Roscoe Orman, Charlie Brown, Sinead O’Conner, and Shrek. If only I looked more like Shrek.
Setting aside the issue of hotness, mostly it would help to have a larger sample size of students reviewing me. Out of the 1400 students I estimate having taught over these last six years, I have gained only a paltry 14 ratings on ratemyprofessors.com. A low number to say the least, but on this site, a low number is not unusual. Observe, if you will, the rating for the head of my department, a PhD with almost 45 years of experience. His ratings top out at only 111 or about 2.5 ratings per year. Better than my 2.33 ratings per year, but I should remind you that he gets to teach English majors English courses that they enjoy taking. As an adjunct, I teach non-English majors courses that they don’t enjoy taking. How do I know? This is one topic upon which my students freely offer information. In any case, assuming that ratemyprofessors.com has been around for half of his career, it seems that my department chair should have accumulated more than 111 reviews.
Perhaps the students that didn’t enjoy my class didn’t post their ratings because they don’t want to embarrass or irritate me with more low ratings, or maybe the ones that liked my class didn’t know that ratemyprofessor.com even existed, so they didn’t take the time to contribute to the site. For this reason, I’ve decided to share my knowledge of the website with my future classes. It could be that there are many students who would complete an evaluation if they knew the site existed and if they knew how helpful it could be for me and my colleagues.
That’s why from now on, I will be having all of my students log onto ratemyprofessor.com in class, either on their cell phones or computers. Providing me with a detailed evaluation will be part of their class participation grade, and as with all such in-class assignments, I will be checking over their shoulders and marking down this participation in my grade book. The more students I am able to enlist in giving me ratings, the greater the raw data I will have to draw from. As I place this data in my Excel spreadsheet and crunch the numbers, I will better identify ways to improve my methods, and my future students will be well served.