Review of

The good

RateMyProfessors can provide some valuable information, especially when no better information is available. If students are given a choice between two instructors for a certain course, it’s understandable that they would choose a professor with dozens of insightful reviews and an average of 4.8/5, over a professor with a similar amount of reviews and an average of 1.2/5!

The bad

Only a small fraction of students actually leave reviews on RateMyProfessors, especially here at UC Davis, where core CS classes are very large. From my own observations, some years ago, I typically receive about 5 new reviews per 200-student class that I teach (i.e., less than 3%).

The common intuition that people have, with which I don’t necessarily disagree, is that reviews are mostly left by students belonging the groups located at the two extremes on the “satisfaction spectrum”.

Overall, RateMyProfessors is not representative of what the majority of students might actually think about a certain professor.

And the ugly…

RateMyProfessors takes almost zero precaution to ensure that reviews are relevant. For example, they do not even check that reviews are left by actual UC Davis students.

It appears that this lack of reliability is less a bug than a feature, since implementing minimal safeguards should be straightforward; they could simply check that reviewers have a valid email address. It would incidentally prevent a student from posting multiple reviews for a same class.

This lack of basic protection allows, for example, a single disgruntled student to go on a smear campaign against a professor (e.g., leaving dozens of bad reviews), thus making the rating system even less reliable and relevant.

An ideal solution?

The cure for bad information is better information.

As rightly mentioned in this article (published 15 years ago!), the best remedy against RateMyProfessors is more transparency from institutions themselves.

Here at UC Davis, students are invited at the end of every quarter to complete anonymous, official class evaluations. These evaluations are intended to have meaningful impact as they become part of merit and promotion dossiers for faculty advancement.

Although these class evaluations are unfortunately not completed by all the students, it’s still possible to get truly representative data. For example, I personally count the completion of class evaluations for all the classes that I teach as participation extra credit (just a tiny fraction of a percentage point), and as a result, I easily reach completion rates of 75% to 85% (even with my large 200-student classes).

Sadly, there is no current effort to make these types of official evaluations available to students. Last year, I specifically asked my leadership if I could share my own class evaluations on this website, but my request was denied. The immediate (and understandable) reason was that students wrote their comments under the assumption that they would be confidential.

However, my belief is that we could implement a system specifically designed for sharing relevant results of these class evaluations with the rest of the student population. In that case, websites such as RateMyProfessors would quickly become deprecated, as students would have better data to make informed choices, and professors would be better held accountable for their work in the classroom.

My imperfect solution

Although full class evaluations cannot be published for confidentiality reasons, aggregated class evaluation scores are different since they can’t be traced back to individual students.

You’ll find all my scores in this article.