How Not to Rate the Worst Professors

I was surprised to come across an article from Yahoo! Finance claiming knowledge of the “25 Universities with the Worst Professors.” (Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, but that is another discussion for another day.) The top 25 list includes many technology and engineering-oriented institutions, as well as liberal arts colleges. I am particularly amused by the inclusion of my alma mater (Truman State University) at number 21, as well as my new institution starting next fall (Seton Hall University) at number 16. Additionally, 11 of the 25 universities are located in the Midwest, with none in the South.

This unusual distribution immediately led me to examine the methodology of the list, which comes from Forbes and CCAP’s annual college rankings. The worst professors list is based on Rate My Professor, a website which allows students to rate their instructors on a variety of characteristics. For the rankings, a mix of the helpfulness and clarity measures is used in conjunction with partially controlling for a professor’s “easiness.”

I understand their rationale for using Rate My Professor, as it’s the only widespread source of information about faculty teaching performance. I’m not opposed to using Rate My Professor as part of this measure, but controlling for grades received and the course’s home discipline is essential. At many universities, science and engineering courses have much lower average grades, which may influence students’ perceptions of the professor. The same is true at certain liberal arts colleges.

The course’s home discipline is currently in the Rate My Professor data, and I recommend that Forbes and CCAP weight results by discipline in order to more accurately make comparisons across institutions. I would also push them to aggregate a representative sample of comments for each institution, so students can learn more about what students think beyond a Likert score.

Student course evaluations are not going away (much to the chagrin of some faculty members), and they may be used in institutional accountability systems as well as a very small part of the tenure and promotion process. But like many of the larger college rankings, Forbes/CCAP’s work results in at best an incomplete and at worst a biased comparison of colleges. (And I promise that I will work hard on my helpfulness and clarity measures next fall!)

Author: Robert

I am an a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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