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'Hotness' and Quality

May 8, 2006

If you’re not sexy, you might want to be easy.

At least if you’re a professor concerned about your rating on RateMyProfessors.com. James Felton, a professor of finance and law at Central Michigan University, and colleagues looked at ratings for nearly 7,000 faculty members from 370 institutions in the United States and Canada, and his verdict is: the hotter and easier professors are, the more likely they’ll get rated as a good teacher.

As far as students -- or whoever is rating professors on the open Rate My Professor site -- are concerned, nothing predicts a quality instructor like hotness.

Felton found a positive correlation of 0.64 (0.00 means there is no correlaton whatsoever, and 1.0 describes a perfectly linear relationship) between the “hotness” and “quality” -- quality is a composite of “helpfulness” and “clarity” -- ratings on the site. “Hotness” is determined by evaluators choosing “hot” or “not hot,” with each click counting as either +1 or -1. “Quality” is on a simple 1-5 scale. (Felton may be an exception on the correlation -- while he doesn't get any hotness points from RateMyProfessors, he does well on quality.)

The potential bad news, for professors who thought the way to a student’s heart is only through a grade, is that being “easy” doesn’t trump being hot, when it comes to the quality ranking. The easiness-quality correlation was 0.62.

Some faculty members might be happy to know, however, that being hot and easy don’t necessarily go together. The hotness-easiness correlation was 0.39.

The relationships are most pronounced for professors that students rated as really, really hot, or really, really not.

The 102 professors ranked as least attractive in the sample had an average quality rating of 2.14, and an average easiness rating of 2.20. Meanwhile the 99 “hottest” profs had an average quality score of 4.43, and an easiness rating of 3.5.

Felton said that the vast majority of the 750,000 past and present professors rated on RMP don’t have extreme hot or not ratings, but he said that, beyond the obvious drawbacks of RMP – “anybody can post, and post as much as they want” – the survey “shows us just how biased students are by easiness and sexiness.”

Felton said that the study is not an attack, or an endorsement of RateMyProfessors, but the site provided data, and a good way to get a sense of what might influence anonymous student evaluations, whether on RMP or elsewhere. Many institutions have started their own, internal online rating systems to offer students a reliable alternative to RateMyProfessors.

In terms of discipline, engineering, computer science, and chemistry had both the lowest quality and hotness ratings. Languages, sociology, and political science had the top quality ratings, and ranked first, sixth, and fifth, respectively, out of 36 disciplines for hotness.

When Felton subtracted the easiness score and an adjusted hotness score from the quality score, chemistry jumped to the top of the “adjusted quality” list.

In a previous paper, Felton and colleagues offered two explanations, from other researchers, for the relationship between hotness and quality. The first is the “Immediacy Principle,” which posits that students are more engaged by attractive teachers who they think they’d want to socialize with, and might consequently do a better job learning.

The other is the “Halo Effect,” the idea that students approach attractive teachers with the mindset that “they can do no wrong,” Felton said.

Halo “is the one we’ve sided with,” Felton said, adding that “it’s really a guess, just based on the comments” that go with the scores.  

Felton said that most comments tend to be either glowing, or biting, and added that the comments that bothered him most are those that say: “It was a really boring class. I didn’t learn much, but it was easy, so I recommend it.” Felton said he joked about naming a 2004 article he co-authored on the topic: “Great Class, Easy as Hell.”

Felton said that, for the most part, he thinks professors and administrators take RMP with a grain of salt, but he added that it has become a widely recognized part of college culture, and that “if a department is trying to hire somebody new and they don’t really know much about them, they might take a peek.”

In a previous article, “The Professor,” who asked to remain anonymous and is the founder of Rate Your Students, a response to RMP, recalled Googling someone who was applying for a job at his institution. Up came the RateMyProfessors.com comments, and several noted that the person in question would bring her cat to class. “I have no way to know if this is true,” The Professor said. “But once it was in there, I couldn’t get it out of my brain.”

Patrick Nagle, 23-year-old chief operating officer of RateMyProfessors.com, said that a recent survey showed that 60 percent of all quality ratings are “positive,” or are at least the score of 3.5 which merits a smiley face.

Nagle said that RMP gets inquiries now and then from faculty members asking why a chili pepper, which symbolizes a positive hotness score, disappeared. As to any hotness or easiness bias on the part of students, Nagle said that students have a right to express their opinions, and to help other students choose professors in any way they see fit.

As for the contention that RMP scores can actually hurt a professor’s career, Nagle said he thinks the sentiment is “overblown.” He added that RMP collects the IP addresses of users, and said that, on a few occasions, the Rate My Professors staff has decided to report to an institution a professor who was excessively ripping his or her colleagues on the site. “There have been issues where a school has cracked down on professors grading their colleagues,” he said.

In case any faculty members are worried that RateMyProfessors has no heart at all, the site doesn’t display hotness scores below zero, because it does not want to embarrass professors. According to Felton’s study, however, they may well be able to infer such ratings from quality ratings that are in the gutter.

 

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