Until now, college students mostly have relied on word of mouth, professors' reputations, previous student evaluations and the often rude and anonymous comments (complete with a "hotness" ranking) on RateMyProfessors.com before choosing a professor for a particular class.
A 20-year-old sophomore at Northeastern University has hopes of changing all that with a new website called KnowThyProf.com, a platform where individual professors can share information with prospective students by answering a few questions in a limited number of characters.
Daniel Abram, the student who started the website, said students often have an incomplete picture of professors before they decide on a class. He called it an “imperfect information” situation, where the information available may not be very relevant or polarized and anonymous (as in the case of a site like Rate My Professors).
“Professors are not commodities. You are not choosing a refrigerator after reading Consumer Reports,” Abram said. One student might prefer straight-up lectures, another might prefer a more discussion-based class. “There are no ratings or rankings. It simply tells you what kind of person the professor is,” Abram said.
But couldn’t a student find out information about the professor just by going to a faculty member’s profile on a university’s website? Not really, Abram said. “There are usually lists and lists of publications. As a student, I don’t want that. It is counterproductive,” he said.
What his website does, he said, is condense the information by asking a professor to sign up and ask them questions like "What is your style of teaching?" and "What is the most engaging assignment you give?" The answers to these questions have a 160-character limit.
“I am focused on building content now, with the hope that it will become the go-to website for students and professors,” Abram said. Currently more than 15 professors from five different institutions -- Boston University, Brown University, Johnson and Wales University, Northeastern University and Simmons College -- have registered on the website and answered the questions.
Erik Ehn, a professor of theater arts and performance studies at Brown, answered a question about what he looks for when grading a student by saying: "Have they written their brains out?" Richard Hanna, a professor of marketing at Northeastern, said his students should approach his class like a job in response to a question about what advice he has for them. "Show up to work ready to go and put in a strong effort. You'll get out of the class what you are willing to put in," he said.
Of course, the site will compete with the popular and MTV Networks-owned Rate My Professors. Jake Urbanski, a spokesman for MTV, noted that Rate My Professors now has 13 million professor ratings for the 1.6 million professors listed on the site.
Jenna Duncan, a senior at Northeastern, said she found Know Thy Prof's concept interesting but wondered how students would interpret the answers from the professors.“The professors would like to show themselves in a certain light,” Duncan said, meaning that they are not going to say anything that may make them unpopular. She said word of mouth remains important, and so does academic advising.