Tuesday, January 17, 2006


technorati tag:

One thing that I read with interest in all those academic blogs is the ongoing discussion of student evalutaions. This is a perennial topic of discussion in academic circles, and seems to be no less on academic blogs. One place that this led me, somewhat reluctantly, was RateMyProfessors.com.

I had heard about it (or some predecessor) some time ago, and I think I tried to check it out, but had no luck finding myself. Now I went back and checked, and yes, I am on there. My first hope, of course, was that my ratings were obscenely high. They weren't. Well, maybe they are at least high compared to my school or my department in general. Nope. Well, are they higher than someone in my department? Yes!

Of course I know that it's nonsense. I have been rated 14 times, out of about 1000 students that I've had at my current institution. Besides being small, the sample is not a random one. It consists of students who felt strongly enough to get on RMP.com and rate me. This tends to exclude the broad middle ground of students who think I was OK.

So then I turned to the comments. I immediately began categorizing them: helpful or not helpful, good or bad, clear or vague. I'm not really thick skinned enough to shrug off the bad ones, even though I know that there is probably more to be learned from them than from the good ones. But after some reflection, I realized that I'm really looking at the comments all wrong, because they are not meant for me. There are forums for the students to tell me what they think about me, and to tell my department what they think about me. But this forum is for students to talk to students, and everything should be looked at in that light.

Take, for example, a complaint that I put things on the exam that aren't on the review sheet. That's correct, I do. I could write a short essay on why I think that that's educationally valuable, and perhaps someday I will. But that doesn't mean that my students will recognize its value. And if a student feels strongly that that is bad practice, well, they should know about it before they sign up for my course. I'd be happy to tell them myself. In fact, I'm thinking that I need to be more clear about the fact that I do that, and that it is intentional, to promote it from one of those things that goes without saying.

On the other hand, some comments are no use to me or to my potential students. One student wrote something like, "Get a new wardrobe and a shave." If that's addressed to me (as it seems to be) it's just mean. If it's for a potential student, what good does it do? My school does not have nearly enough sections of courses that someone can afford to choose another section because I have a scruffy beard or a pilled up sweater.

Are there comments that can be helpful to me and to potential students? Yes. One student wrote that I "don't care" when students come to my office hours. In general, that's not true. Office hours are one of my favorite parts of teaching. I think that I work better with students one-on-one or in small groups than in lectures. I also know that I always learn a lot about my students when they come in for help. It's a truism that if one student stops in to my office with a question, then more have similar problems, and if more than one student stops into my office with the same question, it's likely something worth going over in class. But somehow I gave this student the impression that I don't like office hours. Perhaps they stopped by when I had something else to do, and I was too curt with them. Perhaps they asked a stupid question (yes, there are too such things) and I was unable to conceal my impatience. Perhaps they were griping about a grade and dissatisfied with my answer. I need to pay attention to the nonverbal signals I give in these cases, and this comment helps me to be aware of that.

So, will RateMyProfessors.com be a regular stop for me? No, I don't think so. As I say, I'm not thick-skinned, and the amount of useful information is probably too low for me to put myself through that. But I do appreciate that such a site exists, and I don't worry that potential students will be scared off.


Andrew Purvis said...

Take heart. At least you can decipher the comments. Some of the worst writing I have seen (I teach English) is to be found in a comment by a student who knows how to edit. How do I know this? the information she provided made it impossible for the comment tobe made by anyone else.

How does it make me look when I am praised for my skill by someone whose comments look like something from a casual chat log?

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