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Does “Rate My Professors” Help or Hurt Learning?

New study explores whether classroom learning can be impacted if professors are allowed to respond to negative characterizations on RMP.

by National Communication Association
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lecture hallA lecture hall at Baruch College, New York City, USA.Photo credit: Xbxg32000, Wikimedia CommonsWashington, DC  - is the largest online source for student-generated ratings of college and university professors. Millions of students have evaluated professors on the site, which claims that more than 4 million students use it each month to glean insights about potential professors. But RateMyProfessors (RMP) doesn’t allow for professors to directly defend themselves against negative ratings. This distinguishes the site from the many corporate sites that do allow feedback about products or customer service, potentially allowing the reader a more thorough profile. 

Now a new study, published in the National Communication Association’s journal, Communication Education,explores whether classroom learning can be impacted if professors are allowed to respond to negative characterizations on RMP. Researcher Yuhua (Jake) Liang of Chapman University tested this hypothesis with study participants who read negative evaluations of an unknown professor on RMP and were told that the instructor was a candidate for a teaching position at their university. The professor was then allowed to comment on the negative reviews using scripts in which she affirmed her qualities of fairness, concern for student learning, and/or official teaching experience. Next, the students watched video of that professor delivering a lecture and were tested on the content of the instruction. 

Students who read the professor’s comments performed better on the cognitive test of the lecture content than those who saw no such commentary.  Specifically, those students who read the instructor’s comments attesting to her fairness scored the best on the cognitive test, followed by those who read about the instructor’s caring toward students. Students who read neither set of comments scored the most poorly.  Reading the professor’s description of her official teaching experience did not appear to impact student scores.  Liang concludes that students who were exposed to a professor’s description of herself as fair “showed an increased level of trust in the professor and went on to perform better on the test than students who saw no such message.”

Because students actively use sites such as RMP to select instructors, the results of Liang’s research might inform university policies about whether instructors should be allowed to respond to student comments.  If professors are allowed to respond, Liang’s research suggests the most productive way to do so: emphasizing fairness in classroom policies and caring about student success, rather than rebutting individual charges, which could provoke further negative comments.