Thursday, February 26, 2009

measuring up

For no particular reason, I just revisited a site called and looked at reviews for a couple of my college prof friends. It was uplifting to see that the student comments were mostly positive, and quite positive, at that; only a small fraction of students used the format to make stupid comments, and those students' poor grasp of grammar and punctuation made it evident that their comments weren't worth much. The nightmare for us teachers is receiving a negative review from students whose opinions we respect.

Student flak is just part of the job. I imagine this is what celebrities endure, though on a far greater scale as every aspect of their lives is picked apart by the paparazzi and the tabloids. Teachers might not be stars, but they're only human, and they can be stressed by student evals. One colleague of mine at Sookmyung Women's University referred to the Rate My Professors site, years ago, as the Teacher Suicide Generator. She must have seen a lot of vicious reviews. I've seen a few nasty comments on the site, too, but the students who wrote such comments displayed their own worth in doing so.

My own experience with student ratings at Sookmyung was quite positive, but I also felt the ratings sheets were poorly designed, often conflating the teacher with the course (sometimes, course structure is partially or completely mandated by the department, not the prof; one infamous semester involving a twisted form of Content-based Instruction comes to mind). In some cases, the student comments for other teachers (some of us were open about sharing student reviews with each other; others of us were too nervous and insecure to reveal our ratings) were so far off the mark-- one very nice, very competent teacher was referred to as "scary" by some students-- that I wondered whether those students had been huffing glue in class.

I get the same impression while reading the Rate My Professors site. The ratings are divided into four categories: easiness, helpfulness, clarity, and rater interest. I have problems with the first and fourth criteria. What does a low "rater interest" score mean? If I give a low rating, does this imply that I don't have a dog in this fight? If so, then why bother rating the prof if he's not worth the bother to rate? The problem with "easiness" is that the rating can be interpreted in completely opposite ways. If a prof is "easy," is this a good thing or a bad thing? If I get an "A" in an easy prof's class, did I earn the "A"? It's not obvious what "easy" means or implies.

Helpfulness and clarity are good criteria, but here, too, there is room for ambiguity: a student might rate a teacher as "not very helpful," but for this rating to mean anything, it's important to know whether a student actually attended class consistently and bothered to take advantage of the prof's offers of help by visiting during office hours, writing emails, etc. At Sookmyung, one of the rating criteria was "teacher acts for the benefit of student understanding," a criterion that might be similar to-- and just as vague as-- "helpfulness." My rating in this area was always in the high 90s (written comments every semester almost always included notes about my detailed explanations), but the students who gave me lower ratings made me wonder whether they had (1) actually listened in class, or (2) sought help from me while I was at the office (which was all the time; I practically lived there).

As I told one person, I'm planning to write a book for Korean students of English that discusses how students should evaluate their teachers. For cultural and personal reasons, many Korean students fail to look for the essential qualities of a good teacher, rating them primarily on whether class was fun-- not on whether they felt challenged or had learned much during the semester. College students in particular need to shed their childish mental criteria and view teachers through the lens of mental and emotional maturity. Based on what I've seen at Rate My Professors, the same may be true for a small slice of American undergrads as well.


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