Rate My Professors is bad for student learning

Feeding the belief that success depends entirely on external factors discourages students from taking responsibility, says James Wicks

August 15, 2022
A woman receives a one-star rating
Source: iStock

In the world of student success and support services, encouraging individuals to take responsibility for their own academic success is our mantra. Indeed, many campus offices cite this as central to their approach. For example, students are frequently reminded that professors do not give grades: students must earn them.

This is quite right. For students in higher education, learning is a proactive pursuit, requiring focus, commitment and discipline. In adversity, students must make their own corrections to how they engage with the course material to achieve understanding.

This mindset involves what is known as an internal locus of control. Students attribute their successes and failures to things within their control, such as effort, hard work and study habits. For those on the front lines of student success, it means honestly addressing prickly subjects, such as students’ areas of improvement (formerly known as weaknesses).

Of course, it is instructors’ responsibility to guide students in addressing these, but they are not solely responsible for their success or failure.

Yet that is not the impression that students are given when they log on to websites like Rate My Professors. There, the tacit assumption is that student success depends entirely on how “awesome” their instructor is for the course in question. Students often derive the impression that they do not stand a chance of passing the course unless the professor is supremely knowledgeable, perfectly articulate, highly charismatic, impossibly prompt in replying to emails and exceptionally flexible when it comes to attendance and deadlines.

Students will reliably shy away from all instructors who have less than a 3 – even though, in many cases, these ratings are based on fewer than five contributors (all anonymous, by the way). So not only are these sites telling students which teachers will fail or pass them, they are suggesting that the input of four random people is generalisable. What’s worse is that if an instructor with a 2.5 rating – or, heaven forbid, a 1 (“awful”) is all that is available, a student registered for that course might begin it already resigned to having a bad experience and receiving a low grade. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In other words, Rate My Professors encourages students to adopt a strong external locus of control, dwelling on factors outside their control. As well as tutor awesomeness, those could include natural ability, health status, social environment or even the weather. Students who think this way are less likely to take responsibility for their academic success and make improvements to salvage a grade.

Yet students cannot just be told to work on their internal locus of control. When they are already feeling vulnerable about struggling in class, they are not always receptive to critique. And I admit that it is difficult to have conversations with them about poor academic performance within this frame of reference because it often sounds like “student-blaming”.

Students have to realise for themselves that their academic success really does depend on things for which they can and should take responsibility. But academics can nudge them in the right direction. Instead of telling a student outright that their academic struggles are their own fault, higher education professionals should simply ask questions such as “Did you study as much as you could have?”, “Would you say that you’re always as focused in class as you could be?”, “Do you believe you take notes in a way that reliably leads to comprehension?” and “Do you think your study habits are as good as they can be?”.

Each time a student confronts a question like that, they have to look within themselves to find an answer. More often than not, reflection will reveal several adjustments they could make to produce better academic outcomes.

In higher education, as in life, students have to learn to be successful in the face of adversity. A language barrier, for example, is just a barrier, easily overcome with sufficient effort and commitment. Strict attendance policies are easily adhered to with basic schedule adjustments. Inflexible deadlines are easy to meet with proper planning and attention to detail. But students must first realise that their success depends upon what they are willing to adjust and address, not what the instructor will accommodate.

People hardly ever get to choose their bosses or co-workers. They have to learn to be successful despite the things they cannot control. It is time we told our students to forget about Rate My Professors and embrace whatever challenge awaits them. They will be better for it.

James Wicks is district college and career counsellor at Collin College.

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Reader's comments (1)

A great deal of material on rate-your-lecturer is defamatory abuse of the worst kind. It is abusive trolling and yet Google refuses to remove links to the defamtory material. The reviews are normally from the 10 weakest students in a year who have failed and sometimes from disgruntled staff rating colleagues. The false claims and abuse is contrary to the Defamation Act 2013; Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and the Malicious Communications Act 1988, but the police are yet to take action against those using the site and the site itself for facilitating criminal harm against lowly paid academics. The provisions in the Online Harms Bill might go somewhat towards getting the platform provider, rate your lectuer, to remove this abusive defamatory trolling trash about academics from its site. A class action against rate your lectuer is long overdue--no academic should be listed on it without consent--academics are not public figures elected to parliament and are entitle not to have defamatory opinions from students who have not taught themselves, have no PhD or experience of teaching, rating them based on how much they have dumbed down a course.


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