When selecting courses, students often turn to online sites where professors and classes are rated by former students.
Students rate the subject, the professor and how much they liked the class.
They can also rate how much they liked the way the professor … looks.
A very popular website is RateMyProfessors. As of December 2016, RateMyProfessors listed about 17 million ratings of more than 1.6 million professors from over 7,000 schools. It was started in 1999 by John Swapceinski in California.
Andrew S. Rosen, a graduate student in chemical engineering at Northwestern University outside of Chicago, says he likes using the site. But he noticed that male professors, on average, receive better ratings than female ones.
“There’s not one discipline where females professors score higher than male professors,” he says. “Students that submit these reviews may have gender biases against or for certain professors.”
Overall quality scores were also higher for professors rated as good looking.
Rosen made his observations based on a computer program he designed that studied the almost 8 million ratings of U.S. professors. He says no one had ever done a study of this kind.
The academic publication Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education published the findings in January.
Rosen, who graduated summa cum laude with a 3.91 grade point average (GPA) from Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, in 2015, holds a 4.0 GPA at Northwestern University in pursuit of his Ph.D. in chemical engineering.
He says his study shows a subconscious bias among students toward male teachers, and that bias affects their judgement. Students also show a bias toward professors who taught “easy” classes.
Many of the comments about the top 10 rated professors — the top two of 10 are female — on the website mentioned how “caring” the professors were, how attendance was not required, and that tests were not difficult.
University of California-Berkeley professors Jennifer Chatman and Laura Kray analyzed student evaluations of 19 female and 57 male tenure-track university faculty, and like Rosen and other researchers, found that men get higher scores.
“Women need to simultaneously fulfill the stereotype to be warm and compassionate with the students, and at the same time be an absolutely complete, unambiguous rock star,” Chatman told California Magazine.
Julie Mazur, a professor in the general studies department at Montclair State University who ranked No. 2 on RateMyProfessors.com, received an “awesome” 5.0 grade from the 50 students who rated her highly for being “really kind, funny, interesting and great. … helpful and cares.”
Professor Alan Dershowitz, who teaches at Harvard Law School, received an overall score of 3.3 from the 15 students who last reviewed him in 2009. Comments ranged from “great” to “tedious and boring” to allowing his personal politics to impact student grades.
The bias extended to the subjects being studied, too. Professors of mathematics and science often had lower ratings than those teaching art or language. For example, physics professors were rated 3.4 out of 5. Foreign language professors were rated around 4.
Rosen said it may be because professors in some fields have more experience in research than in teaching. But, he said, the ratings could be affected by student expectations of how professors should look and act.
“Some disciplines probably have different gender stereotypes. The stereotypical image of a scientist is kind of like a white male in a lab coat with a beaker, right? So, if you have a professor that doesn’t fit that mold, perhaps these gender stereotypes … are causing these differences.”
RateMyProfessors declined to speak with VOA for this story. But other experts in higher education say rating sites are problematic.
Philip Stark (2.9 from 61 students on RateMyProfessors) is a professor of statistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He and his research partner, Anne Boring, published a study of student evaluations of professors. They looked at 23,000 student evaluations collected by the university of 379 professors in France .
They also looked at a U.S. study of student evaluations of an online class. Students in that class had never met their professors nor learned their names.
Two classes secretly had a male teacher and two other classes had a female teacher.
Stark and Boring found the French students and the U.S. students both favored male professors in their ratings. And in the online classes, the students gave lower ratings when they thought their teacher was a woman.
This happened despite test results showing students performed better in the classes taught by the female.
Stark says universities began about 30 years ago to use their student evaluations when hiring professors. He says it was an easy and low-cost way of measuring teacher effectiveness.
But, he says, it may not be fair to judge all professors the same way.
“It gives students a voice … It makes it really easy on administrators to rank people. The problem is that it may be giving students a voice in the wrong way, or we may be misinterpreting exactly what the voices are able to judge well,” Stark says.
“And in making it easy for the university, the administration to do their job, that doesn’t mean that they’re doing a good job as a result.”
Stark says administrators should be careful when evaluating teachers. They should consider the time, effort and commitment professors put into teaching, not just student opinion.
This story first appeared in VOA Learning English.