The Case for Striking Back

A study by a Chapman University professor suggests instructors could actually help students by defending their record on

July 29, 2015

Instructors have little to lose by responding to student criticism on, a new study suggests, and what they say could actually end up having a positive impact on student performance.

According to research by Yuhua (Jake) Liang, assistant professor of strategic and corporate communication at Chapman University, students respond best in academic achievement to assurances that they will be treated fairly in their courses. Attempts to stress competence or concern for students, however, does not appear to boost either performance or motivation.

“We know from prior research that students often treat the classroom as a commodity and select classes accordingly,” Liang said in an email. “One possibility is that after reading negative reviews, students simply gave up on the idea of having a competent and caring instructor. The only way students might have figured they can learn is if the instructor is fair and creates a predictable playing field where they have a chance to succeed and learn.”

RateMyProfessors was originally intended to be a place to capture word of mouth about which professors to take and which to avoid. Under the cover of anonymity, students could vent about or heap praise upon their professors, rating them on qualities such as easiness, clarity and helpfulness (and, of course, hotness, indicated by a chili pepper).

Those metrics, combined with the lack of accountability for whomever leaves feedback, have been the target of criticism from people in academe. For example, students who receive a poor grade may take their frustration out on a professor teaching a challenging course. Previous research has also found that faculty members with high hotness or easiness scores are more likely to be perceived as good teachers.

Since MTV Networks acquired the website in 2007, RateMyProfessors has become more mainstream. Faculty members themselves can now use their university email addresses to sign up for the website, giving them an opportunity to respond to the anonymous feedback. The website regularly makes a show of those responses in “Professors Strike Back,” a video series in which faculty members fire back at outlandish criticism.

Liang’s study, which appeared in a recent edition of Communication Education, involved 231 undergraduate students of all years at a small university in the western U.S. Using a combination of a made-up RateMyProfessors profile, a video lecture and a quiz, Liang tested if negative reviews -- and different responses to those reviews from the instructor -- affected student learning and motivation.

The students first viewed a RateMyProfessors profile of an instructor purported to work at their institution. Former students had rated the instructor as a somewhat easy grader -- a 3.2 out of 5 -- but the clarity and helpfulness scores registered at a mere 1.4 and 2.0, respectively. Overall, the instructor scored a dismal 1.7 and lacked a chili pepper.

The profile also included reviews from four imaginary students, whose comments included remarks such as “If you value your education, avoid this class at all costs” and “This professor taught me nothing. It was a waste of time and money to take this class.”

Different groups of students read different types of responses -- or no response at all, in the case of the control group -- from that instructor. The responses began by the instructor stating, “I would like to address the negative reviews that other students have posted by describing myself as a teacher,” and then continued with a statement of caring, trustworthiness or competence -- or a combination.

The statement of caring emphasized that the instructor had “a high concern for my students’ success” and “put the needs of the students first.” The statement of trustworthiness, meanwhile, assured students that they would be graded fairly and promised them a “straightforward and direct” classroom experience. Finally, the statement of competence stressed the instructor’s credentials, including “several excellence-in-teaching awards” and a recent book deal.

Only the statement of trustworthiness proved statistically significant. Students who read that statement scored on average a 3.41 out of 5 on the quiz, compared to a 2.57 for students in the control group. None of the other results -- nor the effect of the statement of trustworthiness on student motivation -- proved statistically significant.

Liang said he was surprised that the statement of caring did not seem to improve student performance.

“There were some supplementary findings showing that trust, caring and competence all contributed to increasing student likelihood of enrolling in similar course content,” Liang wrote. “So instructor statements of caring and competence do help in some other way. I believe the key here is to be aware that our students are trying to learn about their instructors, and instructors who write a comment may show that they are in tune and engaged with the student learning process even before classes start.”

The study does not tackle the question of whether or not faculty members should actively respond to comments on RateMyProfessors. Liang suggested it should remain an individual decision. “After all, we see vendors frequently respond to negative reviews on or Why shouldn't we?” he wrote.

Liang, who got his master’s degree at California State University at Long Beach, holds a perfect 5.0 quality rating from his time at the institution, but is so far unrated at Chapman. He credited his own mentors for the positive feedback from students.

“One strategy I implement in the classroom is to see it as a continuous field experiment,” Liang wrote. “Every semester, I make sure I implement two substantive changes to improve student learning. Sometimes they work; sometimes they backfire. I am a firm believer that in the end we all can improve over time.”


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