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Web sites such as Rate A Prof , Pick My Prof, and RateMyProfessors, allow anonymous students to evaluate instructors on such criteria as "helpfulness," "clarity" and even "hotness." Such sites receive tens of thousands of page views every day, presumably from students seeking information before signing up for classes. While many instructors dismiss the sites as unscientific and unhelpful, a recent study in Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation finds that, in many cases, they correlate significantly with university's teacher evaluations.

"Most students are eager to look at the credentials of their instructors, and I think that is very reasonable — they're paying a lot for this education and want to receive the best education they can," says Irving Kornfield, PhD, a University of Maine biology professor, and one of the study's authors. "But the real question is 'what'sthe value of the evaluations they're using?'"

To answer that question, Kornfield and his co-author Theodore Coladarci, PhD, a University of Maine educational psychologist, examined RateMyProfessors and in-class evaluations for 426 University of Maine instructors. Surprisingly, they found that for both the overall quality of the instructor and the amount of work instructors' assign, RateMyProfessors and the in-class evaluations correlated substantively and significantly.

Despite the correlation, Kornfield suggests that RateMyProfessors and other Web sites be used judiciously, particularly for instructors with only a few ratings or comments. He also found that the instructors rated highly on "easiness" were more highly rated on overall quality compared to more difficult colleagues. Moreover, instructors deemed "hot" had somewhat higher ratings on both overall quality and easiness when compared to average-looking professors.

The findings suggest that online rating sites may not be completely bogus, but they aren't necessarily the best source of information for students, says Appalachian State University sociology professor Elizabeth Davison, PhD. Particularly since such sites are inherently "anti-academic" and "anti-intellectual," according to an as-yet-unpublished study, by Davison and her colleague Jammie Price, PhD.

What's more, the sites encourage raters with extreme views, since they allow users to post snarky, unedited comments.

"You get the students that love their professor or hate them, [because] they have to go out of their way to post a rating," she says.

To counter the sites, both Kornfield and Davison suggest colleges and universities make their in-class evaluations public. Too often, that data is kept under wraps, says Davison.

"While some instructors would undoubtedly fight the move, failing to do so will only lead more students to sites like RateMyProfessors.com," she says. "Why not use the resources that are already collected and do a better job of gauging teachers' effectiveness?"