A few weeks ago, a study came out that shook my university a little bit. It seems somebody went through data from Rate My Professors and, based on the overall quality rating (the average of “helpfulness” and “clarity”), they compiled a list of the 25 best and worst colleges in the U.S. Wouldn’t you know it, St. Cloud State University came in at the ninth worst, with Mankato not far behind. I think at this point we all know that RMP is not a representative sample of all students, so using this data to rank schools is flawed from the start. In my experience, you usually only hear from students who really liked the class or really disliked it — not a lot of middle-of-the-road people take the time to post something. But at an individual level, if most people who comment on your teaching style tend to dislike it, perhaps you can learn from that.
Dozens of e-mails were exchanged on our university’s “discuss” list — an e-mail listserv for faculty to exchange ideas and discuss topics — trying to explain why this might be the case and what we can do about it. Among the explanations and possible solutions were:
- This is simply a communications problem. We’re better than students think we are and we just need to tell them that.
- We need to explain to students how harmful it is to our “image” when they say bad things about us.
- Students at SCSU are simply more vicious than students at other schools, and this has nothing to do with our faculty or administration.
- Writing negative comments on evaluation forms without ever speaking up during the actual class is a cultural thing, common not just to Minnesota but to Nordic cultures.
- Good students aren’t posting on the site for some reason, so it skews the numbers. (Why this would be specific to SCSU and not apply to every other school was not explained.)
- We try to give access to non-traditional students who may come in with less academic qualifications and who, as a result, may do worse and be more frustrated and more likely to vent on RMP.
- It’s a Midwest thing. We take lots of rural students and expose them to a diverse, mostly non-rural faculty, and apparently that makes them dislike us.
- Our students are biased, possibly racist and sexist. They claim that female professors hate men and that minority professors hate white people, yet never claim that white men hate women or minorities.
Not surprisingly, there was not one e-mail that said “You know what, maybe we could learn from this and try to do a better job of teaching in ways that our students will appreciate.” Not one. Apparently we’re perfect here and if any student thinks otherwise, it’s their problem. One colleague did say that they try to learn from RMP and pay special attention to comments that are specific and explain what the professor could do to improve. Kudos for that.
A colleague in my department had a different take on it. He said we should wear our 9th worst ranking with pride. The “worst 25 schools” include many good universities, schools of engineering, and institutes of technology. Maybe students simply give you bad ratings if the subject is difficult to learn. There may be some truth in that — I’m not sure how easily students can separate the level of difficulty of the material and the quality of instruction received. I know I always wanted professors who could make difficult concepts seem easy, but sometimes the concept is so difficult that it’s simply impossible to make it as simple as we would like it to be. I know I certainly felt that way during my graduate Time Series Econometrics course, but my experience teaching helped me separate the course difficulty from teacher quality. Your average undergrad may have difficulty doing that.
There may be a modicum of truth in a few of these explanations, but I have a real problem with the “blame the student” mentality that predominated these e-mails. I have a lot of respect for students — I was one once, as were all of these other professors, although they make me wonder if they may have forgotten what it was like. I have a job because of them. I not only teach them, I learn from them. It frustrates me when I hear professors discount their opinions or knowledge. In my opinion, students usually know a good teacher when they see one. If, as a professor, you are going to claim that your students are too ill-informed to appreciate how amazing you are, either a) you’re mistaken, or b) you’re not communicating well enough to your students about why you’re doing things. If I thought I were the best boyfriend in the world but my girlfriend did nothing but complain about me, either I’m horribly wrong or she’s just not understanding how awesome I am. You can imagine how well it will go over when I tell her it’s the latter. (Or, as an analogy to #2 above, I tell her that it makes me look bad when she complains about me to her friends so she really just needs to stop complaining.)
Once students know why they have to do an assignment, and what they’re supposed to get out of it, they are usually willing to do the work. Maybe in the “real world” you’ll have a boss that will tell you to do something without explaining why, and perhaps this kind of teaching is just good preparation for the workplace. But is college simply a preparation for how awful the work world can be? Not hardly. The ironic thing is that professors are often the kind of people that most want to know why they have to do something. We’re intellectuals, after all. We are always questioning and looking for an explanation or a purpose — if you can tell me why I have to fill in a “last date of attendance” for a student, then I won’t complain as much about having to spend some time on Christmas Eve doing it. If you have a method to your madness, it would be wise to let students know what it is at some point.
Maybe students write comments that are snide, but I’ve seen many of them that are actually constructive and specific. Granted, I take every bad rating I get like a dagger to the heart, but when there’s something specific I try to address it. But I know not everyone does that. I’ve seen some professors with the same kinds of specific comments year after year after year, evidence that they’re not taking any of the criticism to heart and trying to fix what students seem to think is a weakness. Aren’t we supposed to be continually striving to improve?
A colleague of mine at a previous university once told me that she didn’t pay any attention to student evaluations. Her statement was something like, “Students don’t know what they’re supposed to learn in a course, so how can they evaluate how effective you were at teaching them the material?” Actually, I think they have a pretty good idea. You have a textbook with 20 chapters. Did you get through only 10 of them or did you cover almost all 20? Did you help make the material more clear or more convoluted? Did you use interesting examples to bring the course material to life and show them how it applies to them, or bore them to death? I think students are perfectly qualified to judge the people who are teaching them and take issue with anyone who feels otherwise. At that point, you’re basically the chef that’s telling the patron that, no, that steak is not undercooked — it’s supposed to be purple, and if you can’t appreciate it that way, you’re not refined enough to be eating at my restaurant.
On a related note: I wonder how many faculty who completely discount RMP will pay attention to a product’s ratings on Amazon.com or equivalent website before purchasing a product? It doesn’t matter if it’s not a statistically perfect sample of the class — there’s still information in there you can use. We all use it. But when it’s about us, suddenly it’s flawed and should be dismissed? I disagree.
For me, the heart of this issue is this: are we to assume that students are adults capable of independent thought, or sheep to be guided to the final destination of a diploma?
I once served on a committee that heard cases of students who were suspended or expelled and wanted to be reinstated to the university. Most of us felt that in order to be admitted before you were scheduled to be readmitted, you had to show that you were taking positive steps to correct the problems that got you in trouble in the first place. But some professors were very sanctimonious about it — they insisted that students should be treated like adults and be fully responsible for their own behavior, and there was little they could do to gain early admission. I then asked everyone in the committee to raise their hands if they graded attendance and almost every hand went up, especially those that were most insistent that students are adults. If they’re adults, why should their attendance be graded? If they can learn the material without listening to your lecture, shouldn’t they have that option without it adversely affecting their grade? If they’re adults, why don’t you treat them like adults?
We cannot have it both ways. We cannot assume that students are free-thinking, autonomous individuals who have their own thoughts and ideas, and then turn around and say they’re too stupid or racist or uncultured to know whether we are teaching them effectively.
It may be true that remarks on RMP often are not the nicest form of criticism, but it’s criticism nonetheless. Simon Cowell may be a pretty mean judge, but there’s certainly a lot of truth in most of his critiques. You can either learn from criticism and try to improve, or you can bury your head in the sand.