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