Rate My Prof; screenshot from ratemyprofessors.com

The website RateMyProfessors.com, commonly known by students as ‘Rate My Prof,’ is a tool used to determine the effectiveness of particular university instructors. The website allows students to provide customer feedback in an academic context where the reviews can range from glowing to scathing and short-sighted.  

RateMyProfessors allows students from various institutions to anonymously rate their professors in no more than 350 characters, and they have the option to rate the quality and level of difficulty of the professor and course on a scale of 1-5. Students are able to search up their universities and the names of their professors and view the experiences and rating students have provided. They also have the option to leave a new review themselves or rating the quality of the comment itself with a thumbs up or a thumbs down.

Consequently, ‘Rate my Prof’ has become a popular means of gauging what courses to go out of your way to register for and, inevitably—which professors and courses to avoid. In fact, UBC student Alexa Marino shared her dedication to the website, “I always use rate my prof! In my experience, the reviews have been pretty accurate. It’s easy enough to gauge whether a bad review is genuine or coming from a place of personal bitterness.”

From my experience of using ‘Rate my Prof’ often throughout my undergraduate degree, I believe that although the website can be helpful, the ratings and reviews should ultimately be taken with a grain of salt. There have been times where I have used ‘Rate my Prof’ religiously and found no problem with the reviews, but there have also been many times where I have taken the reviews too seriously and let the negative reviews of a professor and course get to my head only to find out, after taking the class, that I really had nothing to worry about. Do not take the reviews on ‘Rate my Prof’ at face value, or as objective truth, because they are inherently subjective and not free from bias.

For example, notice how these comments are strikingly different for the exact same professor who will remain anonymous:

“[This professor] is one of the most kind + caring professors at the university. His lectures can be somewhat dry (and monotone) but if you listen carefully he makes subtle and hilarious jokes throughout. [He] was accessible to clear up confusion about assignment expectations and course material. A truly special professor. Take him if you can.”

“I've never rated a prof on here before. But this has to be said: He is terrible. I know he means well, and it's clear he wants his students to succeed. But his lectures are long (monotone) and his expectations are higher than any other prof I've ever had. I'm in 4th year and this was 200 level, and I almost majored in English. Not what I was expecting.”

Clearly, these students have had two very different experiences, although they both concur that this professor’s style is monotone. It is evident that ‘Rate my Prof’ is not entirely reliable and depending on how seriously a student takes certain comments, the website can lead them astray.

While there can be levels of truth to student comments, they should not be a deciding factor of whether or not a student takes a course or not. Every student has unique experiences with courses and professors, and where one student may find a class and professor atrocious, another student may have had a wonderful experience. After having the experience of taking a course with a poorly rated professor, one with resoundingly low ratings such as “SO BAD” and “Just don’t” and earning a good mark in the class, I have realized that a positive experience of a course mainly depends on the student. A professor of quality is important, but if you as a student are willing to work hard in your courses, you are most likely going to be fine.

The Phoenix asked Associate Professor of English and Cultural Studies, Dr. George Grinnell, what he makes of the website. Dr. Grinnell kindly provided his valuable and insightful perspective as a professor,

“I can immediately see the value of the website, especially for students entering university. I am given feedback on my teaching at the end of each term and I take that feedback very seriously. But this feedback is not available to students, so I can see why some students want to have a means of determining which course to take, especially when there are multiple sections.

I can certainly sympathize with the impulse to seek out excellent teachers. As an undergraduate, my studies changed dramatically when I stopped enrolling based on the course subjects and instead sought out those professors who challenged me the most. I think students should always be chatting about courses together and sharing their experiences.

The website can leave out valuable context. Sometimes that is easy enough to overcome: we know what to make of one angry review of a restaurant next to many more favourable reviews, for example. But at other times it may not be: what does “difficulty” mean for most readers? Is one supposed to seek out a professor who will challenge students or does one seek out the magical equation of high grade with low workload (and little or no learning?)?

I think I get more valuable feedback from the questions that our teaching evaluations pose to students. I worry that nuance gets lost when students assess the experience of our 13 weeks together with fewer words than most restaurants get on Yelp. That said, many students’ assessments have a way of distilling things to the essentials in their comments on RateMyProfessor.

The website also tends to assume that all experiences of good teaching are punctually evident and apparent. I would be so curious to get feedback from students 5-10 years later! I know that I did not necessarily appreciate some professors and their classes until much later. The problem was me, not them. It took me a while to understand what they were doing and the impact of their pedagogy was delayed. RateMyProfessors, just like our end of term course evaluations, tends to assume that the effects of teaching are immediate. I don’t think they are. Sometimes an experience of frustration in a class may yield far greater understanding than a happier and easier experience, but it may not come immediately.”