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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

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    A Website That Acts Like An Advisor

    One of the most crucial times in anyone’s college experience is the course enrollment periods at the start of each semester. For many students, creating an ideal schedule predominantly involves choosing courses with the right professors. Students generally look for certain favorable qualities in their professors: experience, approachability, clarity, and, if possible, easy grading. One of the most effective ways for students to learn about their professors’ teaching methods is through word-of-mouth: the first-hand accounts of other students.

    RateMyProfessors.com is a popular website that features a huge database of ratings of professors from over six thousand universities across the United States, Canada, England, Scotland, and Wales. Students rate their professors according to three categories: easiness, helpfulness, and clarity. The ratings combine to form the overall quality rating which is designated by a cartoon face: a smiling face for good professors, an indifferent face for average professors, and a frowning face for bad professors. Students are also invited to submit comments on professors’ performance and to include details such as whether attendance is mandatory in their classes.

    At Stony Brook University, RateMyProfessors.com is rather popular among the undergraduate community. In a random sample of ninety SBU students, 53% reported that they had used the website to research a professor’s rating before deciding to enroll in his or her class. Of these students, 74% reported that had decided not to take a class because its professor had received a low rating on the website. Students gave the website an average usefulness rating of 6.7 on a scale of 1 to 10. This data suggests that RateMyProfessors.com has a significant influence on students’ course choices. Student Shahd Hamarsha, a senior at SB, explains, ‘I think it is a very helpful website to refer to when choosing classes. It just helps in making the decision on whether or not to take that class.’ It’s good to hear what other students have to say because it’s easy to relate to their experiences.’

    Although a large population of students use the website, some still question the reliability and validity of students’ ratings. One of the most common objections raised against RateMyProfessors.com is that the ratings are likely to be influenced by biased student evaluations. Dr. Richard Gatteau, Director of Academic and Pre-Professional Advising at Stony Brook, recommends that students be skeptical of their peers’ opinions: ‘I would advise caution to students when visiting any website that rates instructors and professors’hellip;websites that are opinion-based only likely do not take into account the different learning styles of students, and therefore offer a limited view.’

    Indeed, students’ perceptions of their professors can be highly subjective and perhaps even influenced by the grade that they receive. Another frequent concern is that disgruntled students might post unfair or incorrect evaluations of their professors. The website attempts to combat this problem by asking reviewers to report the grade that they received in the class so that others may compare the reviewers’ experiences with their grade.’ However, grade reporting is not required.

    Even if students do not intentionally post invalid reviews of their professors, further opportunities for bias persist. Another potential issue facing the website is something that statisticians call voluntary response bias, which occurs in a situation where subjects are invited to voluntarily submit their opinions on a specific topic. Since participation is voluntary, often only those respondents who feel strongly enough about the issue will actually respond and resulting data may be substantially affected by extreme opinions. This same bias may occur on RateMyProfessors.com. If a substantial portion of the students who post on the website are those who feel most strongly (either negatively or positively) about their professors, than those professors’ ratings will likely be biased and unrepresentative of how the majority of their students feel.

    Although many staff members feel that the opinions expressed on RateMyProfessors.com may be unreliable, Professor Frank Myers of the political science department believes that the website can nonetheless be a helpful resource for students that use it intelligently. ‘Generally speaking, students are very good advisors about who is a good professor, probably better than the faculty…but you have to be careful because like anything on the net, it’s anonymous and people can say silly things. I don’t trust student evaluations except where students all agree over a period of time. Then, in that case word of mouth is a good thing,’ Myers said.

    Despite its faults, the general consensus among students and even some faculty members is that RateMyProfessors.com can be a handy tool in helping students to decide which classes they should take. Since the information on the website may not always be reliable, perhaps the wisest approach is for students to view others’ opinions critically, to maintain an open mind with their professors, and to use their best judgment.

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