RateMyTeachers FTW; or, the Value of Unsolicited Feedback

As the end of the semester draws near, there is a lot of student emotion banging around.  There are some stories I could tell you, and I will.  Today, though, I’m thinking about a particular outlet for student emotion: RateMyTeachers.com, the site where students go to tell each other which teachers to take and which to avoid.

When I first started teaching, I checked RateMyTeachers all the time.  I couldn’t help it.  We teachers would discuss our ratings  while trying to maintain humility and indifference.  In those days, there was an indicator for “hotness,” in the form of a little chili pepper icon.  (The chili pepper lingers on RateMyProfessors.com.)  There was a lot of pretending that we didn’t like our chili pepper, or didn’t care that we didn’t get a chili pepper.  There was also a “coolness” measure, and if you got enough “cool” votes, sunglasses appeared on the little face next to your rating.  (The sunglasses seem also to have disappeared.)  We didn’t talk about the sunglasses much, perhaps because if you were under the age of 40, you were almost guaranteed to get a “cool” indicator.

These days, I rarely look at RMT, but occasionally I succumb, and then wonder why I bother.  If there are new positive ratings, I think, “Well, sure,” and promptly forget about them.  If there are new negative ratings, I become fixated on figuring out who could possibly have left them, and why.  This is a useless endeavour, and leads to bad moods.

Teachers and other education professionals often debate the validity of even formal student evaluations.  Recently, our college has given us the option of having the students fill out their evaluations online, and there has been a lot of heated debate about whether this compromises the results.  There are discussions on edublogs and in education classrooms about whether anonymous student evaluations of any kind have any value.  I think about these things myself, and the conclusion I have come to is that the value of student evaluations (whether formal or written at 4 a.m. after a kegger), like the value of grades, lies in what you do with them.

Consider the six most recent comments that have appeared on my RateMyTeachers page.

  • “she is too strict. she has this crazy look in her eyes when she is mad. she is bias and judgemental” (1 month ago)
  • “This teacher was a joy. She is the nicest and most patient teachers I had at X College.” (3 months ago)
  • “most wonderful english teacher. recommended one hundred and ten percent.” (6 months ago)
  • “BEST ENGLISH TEACHER IVE EVER HAD!” (1 year ago)
  • “doesn’t give enough time for work.  makes us read too much.” (1 year ago)
  • “Best!  Uses an innovative approach.” (1 year 3 months ago)

There are many attitudes I could take to these comments.

  • I could stop reading them.  (Seriously, would that be so hard?)
  • I could ignore them.  (Once I have read them, this is impossible.  Can’t unring a bell, etc.)
  • I could focus on the good ones and assume that the negative ones were written by disgruntled morons who will never amount to anything.
  • I could assume that I am a crazy-eyed, biased, judgmental, strict teacher who makes unreasonable demands, and that the students who like me have somehow overlooked this.
  • I could declare that the very existence of RMT is an insult and that any information it contains is useless.
  • I could cautiously examine the information that RMT provides and try to make dispassionate use of it.

The last is obviously the best approach, but also the most complicated.  What does it mean?  How do I make use of this information?

Here is an example.  A few years ago, when I was burnt out and tired, there were a few comments in a row on my RMT page that used phrases like “she seems bored with her job” and “she gets annoyed easily.”  These comments were hurtful.  They were also sincere, and, as I was mulling them over, I realized that they were true.  They were instrumental in getting me to examine whether teaching was still the job for me, and, if it was, what I would have to do to stop being bored and annoyed.

The comment above about “doesn’t give enough time for work” had a similar effect.  I knew, during that period, that I was rushing my students.  I was cramming long analytical exercises into the last half-hour of class, and it wasn’t working.  I was trying to fix this problem, but the comment spurred me to take even more drastic measures, and slash exercises or give them for homework, even at the risk of finishing class early.  It did not inspire me to give less reading, however, because … well, see posts like this one for some discussion of that problem.

The most recent comment, at the top of the list above, is one that I may have to set aside.  Yes, I do get a crazy look in my eyes.  (I have very large very pale eyes and I have been known to scare the bejeezus out of people by being a little chilly.  There’s not a lot I can do.)  No, I am not “bias,” at least not more than your average person, and probably considerably less, as overcoming bias is one of my major internal preoccupations.  And I would rather be considered strict than easy – I was far too easy for far too long – so students who don’t like that can lump it.  I don’t doubt that the student who wrote these things was truly upset about something I had said or done, but the reasons for that upset are not things I’m interested in changing.

As for the positive comments, it’s possible to enjoy them without taking them too seriously.  It’s nice when students like you, but it’s beside the point, as are words like “innovative” or even “patient.”  The only positive comments of any real value are those that say “I learned a lot in her class.”  Those sorts of comments show up only rarely on RMT, I’ve found.  Perhaps this is because students don’t learn a lot in my class, but I think it’s more likely that many of them don’t see this as the purpose of this site, or because they don’t realize what they’ve learned until many years later.

The main problem with RMT, I feel, is that it doesn’t ask the right questions – in fact, other than instructing students to give a score for “easiness,” “helpfulness” and “clarity,” it doesn’t ask questions at all.  This is one way in which formal student evaluations are superior: they instruct students to focus on specific things (even if students aren’t always clear on what those things mean.)  And of course, the best evaluation of all is an email out of the blue from a former student, or a conversation at the end of the term in which a student says, “I never understood X before, but because of you, I do now.”

Information is always useful, if we make it so.  RateMyTeachers, even if it is the online equivalent of a slam book or a bathroom wall, is still a source of information.  Like the internet itself, its contents are random and unreliable, but they are real reflections of real feelings.  We are privileged to have access to them.  It is up to us to treat them with the care and skepticism they deserve.

Image by Billy Frank Alexander

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7 responses

  1. I have not had a listing on rate my teachers or rate my professor yet. Most of my teaching career has been as a graduate student and I’m still working on getting my own classroom. I have not yet had to endure the complex “do I or don’t I” struggle that you described, but I imagine that I will in the coming years. I think I will read them, mostly for the few instances in which there is something insightful hidden in the junk.

    However, I do have years of formal evaluations from my college science students that have a great deal of value to me. I know that many professors in the US care more for their research than for their teaching, and do not read the evaluations. Thus, many students believe there is little value to responding thoughtfully and at length on evaluations. I countered this by telling my classes that I am always trying to improve my practice and that I do value their honest feedback. I’ve have comments that I do many things very well and that I should keep them up in the future and I also have comments that some things I do are in the right ballpark of being helpful, but, for this particular reason, may need some tweaks to make them completely understandable. I appreciate this feedback so much, and have been using my evaluations in my teaching interviews to demonstrate growth in my practice.

    Long story short, my point is that if the students know that you consider their feedback carefully, like you expect them to consider yours in class, that the responses on evaluations are much better than if that is not clear. Perhaps that thoughfulness may even trickle into the RMT and RMP realm?

  2. I had to go look up myself after reading your post. I don’t have anything on ratemyteacher, but I do have one on ratemyprofessor. I know of the websites, but I rarely think to visit them. I keep a near constant finger on the classroom pulse. We have a university-wide online survey, a separate departmental paper-and-pencil survey, and I routinely give my own surveys after each test to assess what I think is important. My own survey is geared more toward how helpful specific course activities and assignments were. There is some useful information to be gleaned from all this perception-type data, but honestly, I find results from pre- and post-tests more meaningful. Students may or may not report that they learned much, but the gain in test scores is a better indicator of learning than self-report.

  3. Hi Siohoban. You raise a lot of interesting points.

    Here in France, as far as I know there is no such forum… and given the atmosphere in the institution where I work (young men on industrial sandwich courses) I think I’d probably give it a miss – unless I wanted to go to work wearing a bukha!

    However, although I don’t have access to the data, the institution does have the students rate their teachers … albeit in a controlled setting on their secure web site. Many of them did this recently in the classroom during a break. Extremely loudly. This is, I suppose, a very sincere compliment … and it would appear that I have a reputation for extreme patience. Sweet, and incredibly naïve, bless ‘em. It’s not patience at all, but the grim determination of a crocodile dragging its prey to the bottom of the river. I was born to succeed in this environment, I have been lurking in these depths since before you were in school, and I can outlast your last iota of resistance….

    Now, I take my hat off to all you teachers in school settings where you are faced with this phenomenon of on-line unsupervised ‘rating’. I salute your willingness to embrace such a source of information especially given the risk of stumbling onto something really unpleasant. Good luck to you all. By your openness to such potentially disturbing criticism you are proving that your students are lucky to have you – whether they know it or not.

  4. Asking the inmates to rate the prison is a silly thing to do. The teachers kids hate the most are usually the strictest, most demanding, and least forgiving ones they have. In other words, the ones who are actually teaching the little freaks to grow up and stand on their own two feet, instead of whining on a website when things don’t go their way. They’ll all grow up to be democrats if somebody doesn’t show them the way!

  5. I think rate my teacher is a terrible website. At least in Scotland it is used almost exclusively by disruptive pupils to try and bully teachers, most comments refer to looks, or personality aspects completely removed from teaching. By the way I’m not a teacher, so this comment isn’t just because I’m bitter…

  6. Siobhan,

    I am coming from a different perspective from the other comments. I am a literature student at the University of California. I’ll be a junior this fall, and when I finish, I plan on pursuing graduate studies. Your blog is so interesting to me. Partly because as a student, you’re saying all the things I know my professors think all the time. But, mostly, as someone who wants to teach in the future, your blog sheds some light on the real teaching experience, at least your own experience, which I’m sure many share.

    I don’t know how many “useful” comments you receive from students or how many candid conversations you’ve had with someone who is really engaged in their education, but I can tell you, Rate Your Teacher/Professor.com is not the forum to gather that sort of information.

    For one thing, it is not written for the teachers. It is written for students. Particularly students that want an easy A or don’t want to do homework or something. With that said, don’t get me wrong, I would strongly argue against those that would dismiss or devalue student feedback and evaluations, anonymous or otherwise. That part of your post was particularly sad to me. In an institution of higher learning, where young minds are being shaped and educated, what kind of learning is happening if the institution itself doesn’t value the opinions of their students, students they have taught and hopefully helped along their academic path?

    I think, there should always be room for discussion between educators and those being educated. The student perspective is valuable. There should always be room for students to give their input on what works and what does not.

    I do acknowledge, as I am in the classroom too, that there are those whose feedback would be less valuable. I notice when someone comes to class in monthly intervals, or always has a reason why their paper will be late, or is entitled, or rude, or disrespectful. It’s disheartening and I can’t imagine how frustrating that is for the educator. But, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! Take what you can use and leave what you can’t. I imagine some of your students have not really figured out what they’re doing in college yet. How can they take you seriously when they are not serious about themselves yet?

    I know that I am still painfully idealistic and hopeful about the world of education, but I have had professors that have changed my life, some that I learned a great deal from, and some that I don’t remember at all. I’m sure you’ll have a few in your class who pass through without having learned anything. But, there will be a few for whom your class is particularly impactful! Don’t lose heart. The last thing the world needs is a bored, annoyed professor.

    Jessica

  7. Siobhan,

    I just happen stumble here, and have read only a few of your posts. My first impression is that you are probably a young teacher. Hopefully this is not an insult to you, as I truly believe you are our most valuable resource in education. One piece of advice. Don’t worry about your ratings-wherever they come from. Yes, constructive criticism is helpful and needed, but the rest is worthless. I can’t tell you how many of my past students/parents who “hated” me while in high school have come back to thank me for genuinely teaching them something, above and beyond the subject matter. To me, finding that balance is what is most important.

    Good luck to you, my friend. And keep up the good work.

    Sincerely,
    Michael

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