Why it's problematic to rate professors

Eustress via Wikimedia Commons

Think you're hot stuff, eh? We'll be the judge of that.

Minnesota State University Mankato student reporters have done a piece on classmates' experiences with RateMyProfessors.com -- the bane of many faculty -- just after the university came off not-so-hot in rankings that used the site's data.

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The Reporter's piece -- "The ratings are in" -- shows a few ins and outs of using the rating service. Generally speaking: The site is hit and miss.

How it works: Students score faculty in areas of Clarity and Helpfulness, and the site averages those for an "Overall Quality" score of up to 5.

They can also score professors in how easy the class is, though that's apparently not factored into the overall quality rating.

If that weren't enough, students can also judge attractiveness by assigning a chili pepper to the rating if they think their professor is "hot."

What the site is good for: Getting a feel for professors and how they run their courses, and what the general workload is.

What it's not good for: A true assessment of a professor's ability. As the Mankato paper points out:

First off, there is no way to accurately depict who is writing the "anonymous" comments. Users of the website could potentially not even be students because anybody can access the information on the website and can post comments. In addition, professors themselves could create these ratings. Many professors are clearly aware of the site because some even have profile pictures.

As one Mankato student says:

"Ratemyprofessors.com is nothing more than a gamble," said MSU senior Chris Mangione. "I've had experiences where Rate My Professor has been drastically wrong, but the website has been accurate from time to time."

The key to using it properly: Take ratings with a gain of salt. Filter out over-the-top comments and ax-grinders. Look for long-term patterns of answers.

That said, the Center For College Affordability recently used the Web site's data to rank colleges and universities according to the "talent" of their teachers.

Among the worst, it ranked St. Cloud State (#9) and MSU Mankato (#11), and among the best it ranked Carleton (#8).

This region's poor showing prompted Lynn O'Shaughnessy of The College Solution and CBS Money Watch to say:

The upper Midwest is a hot bed for bad professors. ... Among the top 25 schools with the worst professors, six of them hail from Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Nearly a third come from all parts of the Midwest.

Here are the rankings themselves:

25 Colleges with the "Worst" Professors

  1. U.S. Merchant Marine Academy NY

  2. U.S. Coast Guard Academy, CT

  3. Tuskegee University, AL

  4. Michigan Technological University

  5. New Jersey Institute of Technology

  6. Milwaukee School of Engineering, WI

  7. Bryant University, RI

  8. Bentley University, MA

  9. St. Cloud State University, MN

  10. Rensselaer Polytechnic University, NY

  11. Minnesota State University, Mankato

  12. Western Michigan University

  13. Widener University, PA

  14. Worcester Polytechnic Institute MA

  15. Central Michigan University

  16. Seton Hall University, NJ

  17. Pace University, NY

  18. Iowa State University

  19. Drexel University, PA

  20. University of Toledo, OH

  21. Howard University, Wash. DC

  22. St. John Fisher College, NY

  23. University of North Dakota

  24. Truman State University, MO

  25. Mount Union College, OH

Now notice the dearth of Ivy League schools and nationally known institutions:

25 Colleges With the "Best" Professors

  1. Oklahoma Wesleyan University

  2. United States Military Academy (NY)

  3. Clarke College (IA)

  4. Wellesley College (MA)

  5. North Greenville University (SC)

  6. Master’s College and Seminary (CA)

  7. Wabash College (IN)

  8. Carleton College (MN)

  9. Sewanee-The University of the South (TN)

  10. Marlboro College (VT)

  11. Corban College (OR)

  12. Randolph College (VA)

  13. United States Air Force Academy (CO)

  14. Wesleyan College (GA)

  15. Pacific University (OR)

  16. Whitworth University (WA)

  17. Doane College (NE)

  18. College of the Ozarks (MO)

  19. Bryn Mawr College (PA)

  20. Sara Lawrence College (NY)

  21. Emory & Henry College (VA)

  22. Wisconsin Lutheran College

  23. Hollins University (VA)

  24. Trinity International University (IL)

  25. Cornell College (IA)

In the end, though, college finance author Zac Bissonnette says the ratings don't matter:

Students already know that every college is a combination of great professors and horrible ones, with most falling somewhere in between. ... Bottom line? There's really no reason to to pick a college based on the professors. Go to a reasonably big school, and pick the classes taught by people with good reputations: It's easy -- and it's cheap.

That said, I'm off to rate my old J-school professor, who's still teaching.

You hear me, Mr. Fink? You're gonna pay -- and pay dearly.