Almost every college student has used RateMyProfessor.com, whether they want to admit it or not. It only takes a few clicks in this day and age to figure out the easy As, and many Penn State students swear by its effectiveness for crafting manageable schedules.
Penn State professors, on the other hand, aren’t quite as gung-ho about the service. They prefer to get feedback on their classes through SRTEs that are available on ANGEL through the end of the semester.
“Students should disregard Rate My Professor unless they don’t care too much about a quality instructor and want to find the easiest class to take,” said Professor James Binney, a lecturer in the political science department.
Penn State has the third-best professors in the country, according to the website, just behind Duke and Vanderbilt. Professors in Happy Valley notched a 3.71 out of 5 average ranking.
According to Dr. Dennis Shea, the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs in the College of Health and Human Development (and friend of the site), he finds SRTEs far more valuable than anything written on Rate My Professor.
“I take SRTEs more seriously [than Rate My Professor], by a huge margin,” said Shea. “They are far more representative of student views and provide far more detailed information about how I can respond to student needs and improve my teaching.”
In 2008, the SRTE was moved from a paper form, which was handed out and completed during class time, to an optional online form, which has lowered the student response rate. However, professors still take whatever feedback they can get very seriously.
Approximately 50 percent of students fill out their SRTEs during any given semester. Most SRTE responses are read by department heads and can also be used to decide which professors get tenure, raises, or promotions.
“I tell students that I give them a grade at the end of the semester, and SRTEs are a chance for them to give me a grade,” said Dr. Dave Brown, director of undergraduate studies in the department of economics.
According to Penn State’s website outlining how to encourage higher SRTE response rates, students have told SRTE researchers that they are more compelled to complete a feedback survey if the information will be used to make improvements in the class.
The Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence also talked to professors with a 70 percent or higher SRTE response rate, asking them what their “secret” is. The top tips were to guide the students on how to write proper feedback, to make sure students are completely aware of the SRTE, and to create a culture of feedback in the class, with midterm evaluations as an example.
“I tend to get decent response rates on the SRTEs after much begging. I tell my students in class and via email that the SRTEs have the potential of being a highly useful tool for acting on student feedback,” said Matthew Weber, Ph.D. student and teaching assistant in the Department of English. “ I also tell my students how important the SRTE comments are for me when I work to improve my lessons, assignments, and teaching strategies.”
Professors also say that the SRTE provides an outlet for both criticism and praise, while Rate My Professor reviews normally contain one complaint.
“I take SRTE forms much more seriously than Rate My Professor, because their response rate tends to be high enough to make them more reliable,” Weber said . “Additionally, the questions on the SRTEs foster more substance, relatively speaking, than the open-ended comment form on Rate My Professor.”
That doesn’t mean that professors ignore their personal ratings on Rate My Professor totally. Most professors interviewed admitted to searching themselves from time to time.
“I have searched it, and have thought about the utility of it,” said Professor Anthony Nussmeier, lecturer in the department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. “I certainly have had negative evaluations. I would have no problem talking to a student about a negative evaluation and I have.”
SRTE responses are not viewable by students; they are saved by Penn State for 10 years and then deleted. Rate My Professor ratings are viewable by everyone, and there is even a section for the professor to “strike back” and defend his or her rating. Penn State professors rarely do this, even if they receive an extremely negative rating.
“If a student is having a problem with me as an instructor, I would hope they’d come see me and talk about it long before the semester is done,” said Professor Christopher Ritchie, a senior lecturer in journalism. “I don’t necessarily think that engaging in a series of running comments on Rate My Professor is the best forum to resolve those kinds of issues.”
Professors also think it’s unnecessary to defend themselves, simply because every student has the right to his or her opinion, regardless of what it is.
“The student has a right to an opinion and other students will intuit whether it is valid or not and whether it is of significance for them, personally,” said Dr. Billie Willits, professor of labor and employment relations.
Shea believes that Rate My Professor is essentially an outlet for personal “venting” or a place to comment on an exceptionally great experience with a professor; however, he also believes it’s very subjective.
“If there’s no valuable information in their comments, then I think your generation has developed the perfect response,” Shea said.
“‘Haters gonna hate.'”