For some, choosing which professor to take a class with is luck of the draw, but sophomore Marco Montero prefers to take matters into his own hands.
His planning tool? Rate My Professors.
The website offers college students information from their peers about professors and gives them the opportunity to rate them and write comments about the specific course they took.
Professors are evaluated on their helpfulness, clarity, ease and “hotness.”
Color-coded smiley faces on the website indicate the quality of a professor’s teaching. A smiling yellow face indicates a well-liked professor, a green apathetic one implies an average professor, and sad-looking blue face is a warning sign.
The website began in 1999 and has since accumulated almost 11 million ratings of over one million professors from over 6,000 schools.
It estimates that 3,000 comments are added daily and that millions of college students look to it for help when planning their class schedules.
Montero heard about the website from other students and has used it ever since.
“It’s an essential tool for college success,” he said.
He admitted to paying close attention to the “easiness” ratings of professors and avoiding taking classes with professors who are deemed to be difficult, especially when choosing non-required courses.
Sophomore Marie-Claire Mandolia agreed that the website is a helpful tool in course selection.
The website estimates that 65 percent of the reviews are positive in nature, but Mandolia acknowledged that comments on the site can be extreme.
“I’ve seen some pretty harsh comments [on the site] which are just unwarranted,” she said.
Sophomore Keeley Anderson agreed, saying she believes that while there is truth to many of the comments, she remains wary of them.
“Different people like different teachers,” explained Anderson.
For reasons such as these, UMW professors have expressed concern with the site’s rating criterion.
“My guess is that the students who take the time to go to the website either really love or really hate their professor and that will skew what they say,” said psychology professor Dave Kolar.
Psychology professor Steve Hampton agreed and attributed the sites unreliability to the heavily biased student sampling.
“From a scientific perspective the site is virtually useless,” said Hampton. “[Ratemyprofessors.com] is entertaining. It’s a place students can vent, praise or criticize. It is a place where students can read humorous comments, [but it] is not a place where students can get useful information.”
On the other hand, Christine McBride, also a psychology professor, understands how the website is advantageous to students.
“If a student tends to need extra guidance in a course, the information about ‘helpfulness’ might be useful. Similarly for students who do not wish to be challenged, ‘easiness’ ratings might help them select a course that meets their needs,” McBride said.
But McBride acknowledged that this kind of tool also presents numerous disadvantages to students, like missing out on potentially intellectually stimulating courses.
“I’ve also talked with instructors who rated themselves and others for fun, gave themselves and other professors ‘chili peppers,’ and generally sabotaged the rating system,” McBride added.
Chili peppers are given out to professors based on physical attractiveness, leading one to wonder what characteristics are most important when signing up for a class.
Psychology professor Mindy Erchull also alluded to biased sampling involved in the website.
“It wasn’t worth my time to review,” Erchull said. “The written comments could be difficult to read—especially when it became apparent that those most likely to comment were those who were most unhappy with a course.”
Not withstanding the reservations expressed by many professors, Erchull pointed out that research published by the American Psychological Association has shown that the overall impressions of comments on the site are consistent with formal course evaluations.
This correlation coupled with the entertainment value offered by the website guarantees that students like Montero will continue to use the website as a way to preview what awaits them in a class.
“It’s a way to know what you’re getting yourself into,” Montero said.