THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 31, Fall 2006

William A. McEachern, Editor

Rating is an Internet site "where students do the grading." College students are comfortable sharing all kinds of information online, and this site has attracted millions of them. The site is designed to be inviting and easy to use, but its ease of use also raises questions about the results. Anyone with access to the Internet can rate any professor. With a little extra effort, someone could rate the same professor more than once, and a student's assessment may be influenced by ratings and comments already on the site. Each professor's summary rating aggregates ratings across courses and across years. Some professors have not yet been rated, and some have few ratings thus far. Thus, if you wanted to dismiss this entire enterprise, you wouldn't have to look far to find fault.

Still, we should not ignore what this site has to offer simply because these evaluations have not been supervised by someone in authority and delivered to us in sealed manila envelopes. Where else can you read what six million students think about hundreds of thousands of professors? Where else can you find answers to some questions that traditional evaluations ignore, such as how easy or how attractive a professor is? And where else can you find teacher ratings searchable in a variety of useful ways? Advertisers on the site, such as Citibank and Discover Card, apparently find the site worth their investment. Taken with a grain of salt, may hold lessons for us all. I have taken a look at the site and offer some summary statistics, mostly about economists. Later I quote student comments indicating what they liked and disliked about their economics professors.

First some background. Ratings on the site are based on a five-point scale from 1, the worst, to 5, the best. To generate the key measure reported on the site, students are asked to rate professors in two separate categories: "helpfulness" and "clarity." These two ratings are then averaged to get a student's assessment of the professor's "overall quality." This measure is averaged for all raters over time and across courses to yield the overall quality for that professor. Professors in the 3.5-to-5.0 range are identified by the site as "good," those in the 2.5-to-3.4 range are "average," and those in the 1.0-to-2.4 range are "poor."

As a crude check on the validity of this overall quality measure, I focused on professors who won the most prestigious teaching award at the University of Connecticut . Of the 14 winners who were also evaluated on, 12, or 86%, were rated as good. One award winner, or 7%, was rated average, and one winner, or 7%, was rated poor. How does this distribution compare with all rated faculty at UConn? Among the 680 UConn faculty rated on the site, 58% were rated good, 22% were average and 20% were poor. Compared to award-winning teachers at UConn, the typical faculty member was about three times more likely to be rated average or poor. Thus, there is at least some rough association between the online ratings and one independent measure of teacher quality.

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