The result can be that so few students sign up for a class
that it gets canceled, says Brown. “That’s a really bad sign for a
professor — not being able to fill your teaching load,” he says.
And often, students are rejecting classes based on comments
about professors’ personality traits rather than more substantial
factors, says Daniel, who has an “off the charts” awesomeness
rating on RateMyProfessors.
“But I don’t care if students like me. I care that they say
they learn a lot, that it was a good class,” he says. “That’s what
students need to hear if they want value for their tuition money.”
Even if students do end up taking a class, reading the online
ratings ahead of time can color their expectations of the
professor, for good or ill, says Gary W. Lewandowski Jr., PhD,
who chairs Monmouth University’s psychology department.
In a 2012 paper in Assessment and Evaluation in Higher
Education, Lewandowski and colleagues described two
studies assessing the impact of online ratings. In the first,
undergraduates were randomly assigned to read simulated
positive or negative profiles of a professor before watching
a video clip of the supposed professor. In the second study,
students watched a real-life professor lecture. In both scenarios,
students who had read positive profiles beforehand rated the
professors more favorably.
Plus, students aren’t the only ones paying attention to
RateMyProfessors and similar sites. Although it’s frowned upon
— and state law and union agreements may prohibit it —
hiring and tenure and promotion committee members may be
checking out such sites, too.
“On an official committee level, we don’t look,” says
What professors can do
Lewandowski. At the individual committee member level, it’s
a different story. “I’d be shocked if people don’t look at it,” he
says. “Humans are just too curious to ignore the information
Once professors get a job or a promotion, the sites can
still have an impact on morale. While negative comments are
obviously hurtful, even seemingly positive comments can cause
harm. Compliments about a professor’s appearance could make
a professor feel self-conscious standing up in front of classes,
for example, while raves about how easy a class is can give a
professor the reputation of being an easy touch.
Social-media-savvy psychology professors might be tempted
to game the system by creating aliases and rating themselves
and colleagues as a way to beef up ratings, says Daniel. But
RateMyProfessors.com’s guidelines prohibit professors from
such practices. Besides, says Daniel, students can tell when it’s
a professor rather than a student doing the rating. “Professors
don’t say things like, ‘He’s awesome!’” he says. “They say things
like, ‘He helped me learn a lot’— things a professor would want
to hear about a professor.”
So how can you manage your online ratings? Here are some
• Monitor your ratings. While RateMyProfessors.com’s
similarly abusive comments, offensive comments can crop up
among the 14 million ratings of 1. 3 million professors. “I’ve
heard of students putting up some very malicious things that
really embarrass people,” says Daniel. RateMyProfessors allows
professors to submit corrections, flag comments for review or
removal by moderators and even provide their own feedback.
Setting up a Google Alert with your name can help you monitor
activity on the site and elsewhere.
• Be prepared. If you’re looking for a job or are up for
promotion or tenure, be ready to explain negative comments
on your ratings, says Elizabeth M. Morgan, MSW, PhD, an
assistant professor of psychology at Springfield College and co-author of the 2012 APA book “You’ve Earned Your Doctorate
in Psychology… Now What? Securing a Job as an Academic
or Professional Psychologist.” “Be aware of what’s out there
so you don’t get any curve balls if someone asks you about it,”
she says. Better yet, be proactive. “One way to counter negative
or inaccurate information would be to make sure that within
your teaching portfolio or teaching statement you have a more
accurate representation of your teaching skills,” she says. “Add
a few sentences about how your averages on official student
evaluations have been above the mean of your department or
add in a few comments students have written on evaluations.”
• Learn from constructive criticism. Professors should take
advantage of the feedback offered by sites like RateMyProfessors,
says Lewandowski, whose own rating was high enough to help
land him a spot in the Princeton Review’s 2012 “The Best 300
Professors: From the #1 Professor Rating Site, RateMyProfessors.
com.” “I’m a perfectionist,” he says. “If one person thought I
wasn’t as available as I should be, I’ll emphasize my office hours
to the class to make sure that perception isn’t out there.” If he
sees comments about his class being too hard, he’ll discuss it
during class. Without being defensive, he will explain that his
class is challenging because he wants students to learn as much
as possible. Even positive ratings can represent opportunities
for growth, adds Brown. When he started teaching in graduate
school, he would often get comments about how his class was an
easy A. “I didn’t want that reputation, especially since I knew I
would soon be applying for jobs,” he says. “I tweaked my courses
• Educate your students. Professors should help students
learn how to identify potential biases in online ratings and seek
out and evaluate high-quality information, says Lewandowski.
Encouraging professors and universities to make official
teaching evaluations available online is one option, he says.
“People complain a lot about RateMyProfessors, but students
are using it because it’s the only information they have to use,”
says Lewandowski. “If we want them to use better information,
we should give them better information.” n
Rebecca A. Clay is a journalist in Washington, D.C.