Michael Hirsh still remembers his worst university professor. “The guy rambled, didn’t give an outline or explain how he graded, didn’t explain expectations. I got C,” said Hirsh, who’s in his last year as an economics student at a Toronto-area university.
“It messed up my GPA. A professor can make or break a course,” he explained. “Sure we gave the university our evaluations, but I wanted to warn other students.” Hirsh decided to take his “scathing” comments to ratemyprofessors.com where evaluations are available to anyone, not just university administration.
Official student evaluations have been part of the student experience for decades, but until the advent of the Internet, students had to rely on friends for professor recommendations — and gossip. Almost no universities provide their official evaluations to students. At ratemyprofessors.com, the site boasts of having more than 6,000 schools with over one million evaluations. Other sites that have launched include Professorperformance.com.
The University of Toronto is one place where the administration is aware of the popularity of online evaluation sites and it’s proposing its own online system, which is expected to go live in September 2011. According to Prof. Edith Hillan, vice-provost of faculty and academic life at the university, sites such as ratemyprofessors.com are “useful for students, but we wouldn’t use them from an institutional perspective to gather information.”
“Often you’ll get comments or scores at the extreme end of the spectrum,” she said.
At Ryerson University, the vice-provost for faculty affairs, John Isbister, doesn’t object to online evaluation sites, recognizing that they are useful for students who can’t access the official evaluations that students give to the administration after a course is complete. “We do care about student experience, but it’s part of the faculty’s collective agreement that their evaluations remain confidential,” said Isbister.
Both universities say exterior online evaluations have no weight when the administration is reviewing their faculty and factoring promotions, tenure, salary and other related things. The fact that official evaluations remain confidential is one reason for students flocking to the online sites as an alternative. “The official evaluations are hugely ineffective — they are good for the university to decide on salaries, but not good at helping us decide what courses to take,” said Ben White, a third-year engineering student at the University of Toronto. “I mean I never see them.”
Online evaluations can be beneficial for students who are either new or not connected to the university community. “They are really helpful and useful — I came here not knowing anyone,” said Yael Sperkut, a first-year humanities student at U of T. “I used it in high school — with ratemyteachers.com — and when I was mad or thought they weren’t doing their jobs, sure I posted — a lot.”
Hillan said the University of Toronto’s proposed online evaluations will have “provostial guidelines” — to oversee the system to make sure it’s used appropriately. These proposed evaluations don’t do enough for White. “Even the ones done through the student union are slightly edited if they’re too profane. I’m getting the straight truth when I go online,” he said.
Despite the popularity of sites such as ratemyprofessors.com, not everyone is a fan of online evaluations. “I don’t want to say something mean about my professor, I might be the only one who thinks that,” said Tamara Milavic, a first-year student at the University of Toronto. Milavic also said that she knows which professors to avoid and which ones are recommended due to having an older sister who studied in the same department.
“I have enough people telling me what to do,” she said. Second-year U of T science student Katie Spizarsky had her own reasons for never doing any evaluations, whether through the university or online. “Friends are more reliable,” she said.
The Canadian Press