Cover Story

Students on RateMyProfessors.com have granted James Madison University psychology professor David B. Daniel, PhD, so many hot "chili pepper" ratings for his good looks that, for the second year in a row, the site has declared him the nation's hottest professor. But is he?

"Sometimes there are looks of bitter disappointment when I walk in to the classroom on the first day of class," jokes Daniel, who uses the discrepancy between his RateMyProfessors ratings and reality to teach students not to believe everything they read on the Internet.

Not everyone approaches RateMyProfessors.com, rateyourprof.com, myedu.com and similar sites so light-heartedly. For
students — especially those at large commuter schools where there's not much opportunity for word-of-mouth recommendations or warnings — such sites can offer helpful feedback on professors and classes.

The sites are serious business for professors, too. For starters, negative comments can drive students away from classes, even good ones.

"Once you see certain things in RateMyProfessors, it's hard to unsee them," says Michael J. Brown, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Oneonta. "As a grad student, you try to avoid professors who are known to be extremely hard graders," he says. "Or since grad classes are usually three hours long, you tend to look for any clues about how boring those three hours are going to be and pick your classes wisely."

The result can be that so few students sign up for a class that it gets canceled, says Brown. "That's a really bad sign for a
professor — not being able to fill your teaching load," he says.

And often, students are rejecting classes based on comments about professors' personality traits rather than more substantial factors, says Daniel, who has an "off the charts" awesomeness rating on RateMyProfessors.

"But I don't care if students like me. I care that they say they learn a lot, that it was a good class," he says. "That's what students need to hear if they want value for their tuition money."

Even if students do end up taking a class, reading the online ratings ahead of time can color their expectations of the professor, for good or ill, says Gary W. Lewandowski Jr., PhD, who chairs Monmouth University's psychology department.

In a 2012 paper in Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, Lewandowski and colleagues described two studies assessing the impact of online ratings. In the first, undergraduates were randomly assigned to read simulated positive or negative profiles of a professor before watching a video clip of the supposed professor. In the second study, students watched a real-life professor lecture. In both scenarios, students who had read positive profiles beforehand rated the professors more favorably.

Plus, students aren't the only ones paying attention to RateMyProfessors and similar sites. Although it's frowned upon — and state law and union agreements may prohibit it — hiring and tenure and promotion committee members may be checking out such sites, too.

"On an official committee level, we don't look," says Lewandowski. At the individual committee member level, it's a different story. "I'd be shocked if people don't look at it," he says. "Humans are just too curious to ignore the information that's out there."

Once professors get a job or a promotion, the sites can still have an impact on morale. While negative comments are obviously hurtful, even seemingly positive comments can cause harm. Compliments about a professor's appearance could make a professor feel self-conscious standing up in front of classes, for example, while raves about how easy a class is can give a professor the reputation of being an easy touch.

What professors can do

Social-media-savvy psychology professors might be tempted to game the system by creating aliases and rating themselves and colleagues as a way to beef up ratings, says Daniel. But RateMyProfessors.com's guidelines prohibit professors from such practices. Besides, says Daniel, students can tell when it's a professor rather than a student doing the rating. "Professors don't say things like, ‘He's awesome!'" he says. "They say things like, ‘He helped me learn a lot'— things a professor would want to hear about a professor."

So how can you manage your online ratings? Here are some suggestions:

  • Monitor your ratings. While RateMyProfessors.com's terms of use prohibit vulgar, harmful, libelous, defamatory and similarly abusive comments, offensive comments can crop up among the 14 million ratings of 1.3 million professors. "I've heard of students putting up some very malicious things that really embarrass people," says Daniel. RateMyProfessors allows professors to submit corrections, flag comments for review or removal by moderators and even provide their own feedback. Setting up a Google Alert with your name can help you monitor activity on the site and elsewhere.
  • Be prepared. If you're looking for a job or are up for promotion or tenure, be ready to explain negative comments on your ratings, says Elizabeth M. Morgan, MSW, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Springfield College and co-author of the 2012 APA book "You've Earned Your Doctorate in Psychology… Now What? Securing a Job as an Academic or Professional Psychologist." "Be aware of what's out there so you don't get any curve balls if someone asks you about it," she says. Better yet, be proactive. "One way to counter negative or inaccurate information would be to make sure that within your teaching portfolio or teaching statement you have a more accurate representation of your teaching skills," she says. "Add a few sentences about how your averages on official student evaluations have been above the mean of your department or add in a few comments students have written on evaluations."
  • Learn from constructive criticism. Professors should take advantage of the feedback offered by sites like RateMyProfessors, says Lewandowski, whose own rating was high enough to help land him a spot in the Princeton Review's 2012 "The Best 300 Professors: From the #1 Professor Rating Site, RateMyProfessors.com." "I'm a perfectionist," he says. "If one person thought I wasn't as available as I should be, I'll emphasize my office hours to the class to make sure that perception isn't out there." If he sees comments about his class being too hard, he'll discuss it during class. Without being defensive, he will explain that his class is challenging because he wants students to learn as much as possible. Even positive ratings can represent opportunities for growth, adds Brown. When he started teaching in graduate school, he would often get comments about how his class was an easy A. "I didn't want that reputation, especially since I knew I would soon be applying for jobs," he says. "I tweaked my courses to make them a little more difficult."
  • Educate your students. Professors should help students learn how to identify potential biases in online ratings and seek out and evaluate high-quality information, says Lewandowski. Encouraging professors and universities to make official teaching evaluations available online is one option, he says. "People complain a lot about RateMyProfessors, but students are using it because it's the only information they have to use," says Lewandowski. "If we want them to use better information, we should give them better information."
Rebecca A. Clay is a journalist in Washington, D.C.