1,000 British academics given ratings on US website

Anxiety mounts as students offer their verdict on whether lecturers are hot. Rebecca Attwood reports

August 14, 2008

More than 1,000 British academics have a score on a controversial American website that allows students to rate their tutors' teaching and appearance.

Since RateMyProfessors.com was extended to cover England, Scotland and Wales, the number of British academics on the site has reached 1,284.

Scores and comments have been posted for almost 900 university staff in England, with some academics receiving multiple postings from different students.

The university with the highest number of ratings in England is Middlesex University, with 147, followed by the American Intercontinental University, with 89, the London School of Economics, 86, the University of Oxford, 78, and the University of Sussex, 70.

The website allows students to rate academics on "easiness", "helpfulness", "clarity" and on whether they are "hot" or not. Students can post comments anonymously.

Although most academics have only one or two ratings, some have as many as 21 scores.

Lucy Robinson, a lecturer in modern British history at Sussex, who is rated on the site, said that while it was good that, driven by the National Student Survey, academics were taking student feedback seriously, there was "ongoing anxiety" about the value given to it.

"Do students always see the bigger picture? Are they always able to evaluate particular courses at the point of completing them?" Dr Robinson asked.

She said the ratings tended to be dominated by American students.

Richard Grayson, head of politics and senior lecturer in British and Irish politics at Goldsmiths, University of London, said he would be "extremely concerned" if comments from RateMyProfessors.com were given much value in Britain because students making them were not obliged to offer any evidence.

"It is extremely important that we take on board students' views, but it needs to be done rigorously through something like the National Student Survey," he said.

RateMyProfessors.com has taken off in the United States, receiving some 6 million postings on 750,000 academics since 1999. The website has also become the subject of research by US academics.

A study in the latest issue of the journal Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education says ratings on the website have "potential value" and suggests that - subject to further research - the site could even be used to inform hiring and promotion.

The analysis, carried out by academics at Towson University, examines the relationships between ratings on "clarity", "helpfulness" and "easiness," on the website.

Their findings suggest that these ratings could potentially be a valid measure of student learning.

"To the extent that future research can further demonstrate with greater confidence that online ratings are unbiased, it may be appropriate to consider using this information to supplement decisions with regard to faculty hiring and promotion, tenure and merit decisions," the researchers say.

But they acknowledge that abuses do occur, reporting instances of department heads adding flattering entries to boost staff morale and of disgruntled students threatening professors with a negative entry.

Meanwhile, a different paper published in the same journal earlier this year found that students were strongly influenced by the appearance of their lecturer and the easiness of the course. At their worst, RateMyProfessors.com ratings are "not much removed from the graffiti on the walls of restrooms", the paper says, adding that the postings are "inherently irresponsible".

Lead author James Felton, professor of finance at Central Michigan University, told Times Higher Education: "It is very troubling for higher education that so many students are just looking for an easy class."

Stephan Dahl, principal lecturer in marketing at Middlesex, who has five ratings on the site, said: "Generally, any form of feedback is good - and RateMyProfessors is just another form of feedback. Just as any consumer rating website, it has its helpful reviews and its downright strange ones, where one wonders if the student was actually in the same classroom as everyone else.

"With that in mind, it is actually a pretty useful website, and yes, I could see the potential for using information from some of the feedback on there to inform hiring and promotion - though being very cautious about it."

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said online gossip might seem "harmless enough and even fun" to some, but warned it could lead to serious online and offline bullying.

"If students have real concerns about their lecturers, they would be better off going through the proper channels," she said.

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com

What some of those ratemyprofessors postings say

  • He's really funny, nice to be with, Sooooo clever and good for flirting! Take his class ladies
  • Caught up singularly in her own world. Brilliant nut box
  • Typical absent-minded professor. Talks a lot but is ineffective
  • Bring a pillow, you will need it
  • It was a tough class. She has the strictest standards of any teacher I have ever had ... But she is brilliant and inspiring. I usually just sat in awe of her intellect
  • He is hilarious in class and makes you want to get up for that 9am class
  • I fell asleep in ALL of his lectures ... but exam is easy
  • What a legend. This man should be made President of the World
  • This guy should quit.

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