Who’s afraid of ‘Rate your Professor’?

There are now many sites that allow students to “review” their lecturers – but is this a good thing? shutterstock

A number of years ago as a PhD student, I was told that you must “publish or perish”. The advice was clear: teaching should be secondary in any considerations.

Instead, I should prioritise producing as many “A-Star” journal articles as possible, apply for all sorts of grants and consider teaching a necessary evil.

“Universities would be great places if not for the students,” one academic once told me only half-jokingly as I began my search for full-time employment.

Proud of the fact that as I was completing my PhD, publishing and co-ordinating subjects as a casual academic, I responded to this comment by quoting the great student survey scores I had received.

Unimpressed, this academic stated that this counted for nothing as these scores could easily be manipulated. Just give students “exam insights” just before distributing the surveys and hold off bad news on essay results until they had been collected.

While I have never adopted such strategies, I am not convinced they would work. What does work is sustained quality teaching that is innovative, relevant, engaging and student centred.

Over the past few years I have been researching quality teaching and have seen frustrations expressed by both staff and students: staff who feel students are not engaged, and students who feel that they get more from reading the textbook and seeing the PowerPoint slides, than they do sitting in class.

This student frustration has led to dwindling class attendance as well as a spate of websites designed to review lecturers. These range from those that seem to rely on student irritation such as Rate My Teachers and Rate my Professors to the ones that focus more on popularity contests such as Lecturer of the Year.

This Lecturer of the Year one is brought to you by Uni Jobs – a great marketing exercise. There are also sites that seek to rate the institution and the course as well as the lecturer.

But it’s not a one-way street for the students. Frustrated with some of the negative comments, a number of lecturers have responded. Rate My Professor has a page called Professors Strike Back, where academics respond to all sots of criticisms, ranging from the workload of certain subjects to the density of specific subject matter.

So with new sites popping up all the time, is this a positive for teaching at universities or a negative?

To begin answering this question, we must consider whether a university education can be considered equivalent to holiday accommodation or restaurants. If so, then the websites above are just versions of sites like TripAdvisor or Urbanspoon.

There is no doubt that over the last decade, students are both seen and are treated as “clients” or “customers”. The commodification of education has altered the relationship between universities and their students. Students now demand value for money.

On top of this, technology now makes it quite easy for students to express their opinions. Social media means that students can quickly share their frustrations and adulation about any experience, including what happens in the classroom.

It is now much easier to compare what can be identified as “teaching excellence” to “poor teaching”. From specifically made YouTube videos to teachers that ensure lecture attendance is rewarded with a unique pedagogical experience, students know what good teaching is and what it isn’t.

Such websites have both positive and negative elements. In recent research, marketing expert Dennis Clayson argues that evidence indicates that these sites are biased towards a “likeability” scale – the more you like someone, the higher they rate – rather than teaching quality.

While the evidence is compelling, there are two additional issues that such websites raise that we, as teachers, should take seriously.

The first is that many academics rarely give students a voice when it comes to content and delivery. While student surveys and ratings are collated diligently, students are rarely informed of the results or whether their feedback actually counts. Academics need to consider giving students a voice, getting informal feedback from both current and past students and seek their opinions.

We must remember that time at university is one of the most formative for most students, and they often feel they lack any control. These websites are one way of reclaiming some of that control.

Secondly, we should see these websites as a way of highlighting where problems lie in the higher education sector. Rather than taking a “shoot the messenger” approach, these websites can be the source of important insights. For example, if subject matter is seen as being “too dense”, then should it be a matter of changing the delivery, or is there a mismatch in expectations?

I am not saying that the students always get it right. But rather than ignoring what is being said, we should look to understand the source of frustrations.

Paulo Freire, one of the most important pedagogical philosophers of the 20th century, reminds us that teachers have as much to learn from students as they have from us. We should never dismiss their life experiences. All too often we are guilty of doing exactly that – and with social media, the emergence of such websites should not come as a surprise.