Study validates online faculty ratings

Apparently, RateMyProfessors.com is not just a place students go to gripe about their worst classes.

The website provides accurate assessments of performance overall, according to a new study in the electronic journal “Practical Assessment, Research and Evaluation.”

April Bleske-Rechek, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire who co-authored the late November study, said it takes only about 10 evaluations to reach agreement among students.

“There’s a consensus for who’s positive and who’s not,” she said.

She noted that the site’s distinction between quality and easiness improves its accuracy.

Bleske-Rechek, whose students tease her about receiving a chili pepper, signifying attractiveness, on the website, added that the online scores are “highly correlated” with traditional in-class evaluations.

“I would never say the site is flawless, but it can be useful among students,” she said.

More than 1.5 million professors are ranked on the website, which is part of the Viacom conglomerate that owns MTV.

Carlo DiMarco, senior vice president of mtvU university relations, said more than 4 million students visit the site each month.

“With so many students contributing to the site, we feel it’s among the best and most accurate tools for students to judge the performance of professors,” he said. “The site does what students have been doing forever: checking in with each other to figure out who’s a great professor and who’s one you might want to avoid.”

GW administrators remain skeptical about the scores’ legitimacy.

Provost Steven Lerman said RateMyProfessors.com’s rankings rarely play a role in tenure and promotion decisions. University-issued student evaluations and peer reviews by faculty trump comments made on the website, he said, fearing that only students with extreme opinions submit evaluations on Rate My Professors.

“So at least right now, given response rate differential, I’m more comfortable with our own evaluation assessment being a good source of information,” he said. “I’ve never met a professor who got great teacher evaluations who wasn’t a great teacher, and I’ve never met someone who got truly horrible teacher evaluations who wasn’t a bad teacher.”

But in a previous study, Bleske-Rechek found contributors are not only those with extreme opinions, although she acknowledged that inflammatory responses can occur.

Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning Stephen Ehrmann also questioned the validity of the comments on the website.

“It’s important for GW to use evidence that can stand up to the same kinds of standards that we apply to other kinds of research,” he said. “RateMyProfessors.com was created as an information source for students, by students, not as a way to evaluate faculty to help them improve their courses or to decide whom to promote.”

The website’s unofficial capacity on campuses remains strong.

Professor of English Jane Shore has the highest overall ranking of the 2,152 listed professors at GW, with all perfect scores by her 14 student contributors.

“Word of mouth can be pretty useful,” Shore said, although she noted that “it’s not a scientific poll.”

After students suggested several years ago that she read her own comments, Shore began checking her colleagues’ scores for fun on the website – a game she said has always “confirmed her suspicions, good and bad.”

Many students consider the website when preparing to register.

Senior Joshua Friedlander said he used RateMyProfessors.com when planning his courses, except when graduation requirements limited his options.

“I have never contributed to it,” he said. “But I do think that a lot of students use the website before registering for classes.”

This article was updated on Dec. 1, 2011 to reflect the following:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that Viacom owned Time Warner and The Walt Disney Company.

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