The cure for bad information is better information.
There’s a lot of unhappiness among college faculty members about RateMyProfessors.com, a Web site containing student ratings of professors. Many college students use it to help pick their classes. Unfortunately, the site’s evaluations are usually drawn from a small and biased sample of students. But since students usually don’t have access to higher-quality data, the students are rational to use RateMyProfessors.com. Colleges, however, should eliminate students’ reliance on RateMyProfessors.com by publishing college-administered student evaluations.
Bad information flourishes when good information is suppressed. RateMyProfessors.com allows students to label a professor as “hot,” gives prominence to how easy a professor is and allows students to publish obnoxious and irrelevant comments about their teachers. When colleges withhold their own internally administered student evaluations from students, they have the effect of colleges' boosting the importance of RateMyProfessors.com.
That’s not to say that student evaluations of professors are perfect; far from it. Students sometimes punish professors for being tough graders, for assigning relatively large amounts of work or even for wearing unfashionable clothes. So it’s not illogical for some colleges to prefer that students not see evaluations of professors. RateMyProfessors.com, however, has eliminated this option.
Most colleges already administer high-quality student evaluations of professors and they should release these data so students could make more intelligent class choices.
Not publishing college-administered evaluations might be unfair to many professors. For example, a student wishing to damage her untenured professor’s career might do more harm through posting a negative review on RateMyProfessors.com than by giving her professor bad marks on the official college-administered student evaluations. RateMyProfessors.com has only a few evaluations for many professors. On this Web site, therefore, one student can have a huge impact on a professor’s averages.
True, colleges will almost certainly ignore RateMyProfessors.com when making promotion decisions, . But many college promotion committees do take into account how many students a professor attracts to his classes. So a disgruntled student who uses RateMyProfessors.com to reduce a professor’s enrollments might end up playing an oversized role in his teacher’s promotion prospects.
Some adjunct professors would benefit from the publication of high quality student evaluations. If college search committees could easily obtain the student evaluations of adjuncts working in their city, they would be more likely to recruit those with stellar marks. In a well functioning market, teaching-star adjuncts would make more than average quality full professors. But markets only pay for quality if that quality is observable by many potential employers.
Publishing high-quality student evaluations might improve college teaching. Professors care greatly about their reputations. Just imagine how much less time most tenured professors would spend on research if all academic articles had to be published anonymously. Tenured professors usually have little financial incentive to satisfy their customers. Perhaps if colleges published high-quality student evaluations, professors would put more effort into obtaining good teaching reputations.
The current generation of college students consults customer reviews before buying books, seeing movies or downloading music. We should expect and perhaps even encourage them to also use customer reviews when picking classes. And students care so much about obtaining reviews of their potential professors that they are willing to turn to an obviously flawed rating service. Colleges should therefore allow students to see the official evaluations that the students fill out and ultimately pay for.
James D. Miller is an associate professor of economics at Smith College.