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(Alissa Zilberchteine / The McGill Tribune)

Evaluating practices when students grade their professors

a/Off the Board/Opinion by

“Very helpful and really hot!” “Great lectures that keep students engaged.” “He is a bumbling fool.” These are common comments that one might come across while browsing instructors’ profiles on RateMyProfessors.com. The site is widely used by university students, and is regarded by many as an indispensable tool for selecting courses. It can be a source of insightful information, influencing students’ decisions to take a course, or to stay far, far away from a certain professor. The propensity for biased, emotionally charged, and non-constructive reviews, however, undermines the effectiveness of the site. Both students and professors should have the right to accurate, appropriate, and informative course evaluations that provide helpful information about what a course is like and how it can be improved.  

In a sample of McGill students questioned for this article, nearly all stated that they have used the popular website to research information about professors. Very few, in comparison, reported referring to McGill’s publicly available Mercury Online Course Evaluations. Students are generally familiar with the course evaluations, which they are pestered to fill out near the end of each semester. A much smaller number of students, however, are aware that responses to the course evaluations are made public to all McGill students (as long as the professor consents). This disconnect, combined with the lack of information provided by the Mercury Course Evaluations, has led students to using alternative sources, such as RateMyProfessors.com, as their demands for information are not being met by the university.

The Mercury Course Evaluations are a selection of numeric responses that gauge student satisfaction with a course and the instructors’ performance.  Respondents are prompted to leave written comments as well, but these are not made public to students. It makes sense that students don’t commonly refer to the Mercury Course Evaluations. They are not highly publicized, and, compared to some of the biting, humorous, and entertaining comments left on RateMyProfessors.com, McGill’s course evaluations are, simply put, boring.

Since written comments are not visible on the Mercury Course Evaluations, the reviews are dull and lack specificity. Each page shows graphical representations of how many students agreed and disagreed with statements such as, “Overall, I learned a great deal from this course.” While such methods of evaluation avoid the risk of devolving into cheap personal attacks, the vague questions and multiple choice answers don’t really give students a good idea of what a course is like, or help a professor to improve the course later on. The format of the course evaluations is mostly suited for the administration’s review of professors. Administrators can quickly go through and notice any red flags that may need further investigation. For student use, however, the ambiguous questions and multiple-choice format of the Mercury Course Evaluations don’t provide the needed insight into courses or the quality of the instructors who teach them.

The Mercury Course Evaluations do have some definite advantages. They make use of professional and objective questions to rate courses, decreasing the chance that students will rate instructors purely on likeability or charisma. The online course evaluations also usually receive responses from roughly one-third of students, ensuring a large enough sample size that the data is varied and accurate. RateMyProfessors.com, on the other hand, has a much smaller number of reviews, and the website generally only attracts comments from students who have very strong feelings—good or bad—about a course.

Student feedback is necessary for instructors to adapt and improve their courses, and students can often provide valuable observations from a perspective that professors and administrators lack.  If equipped with the right channel, students would be capable of contributing thoughtful and cogent insights.  

The Mercury Course Evaluations should be changed to include more specific and relevant questions with more focus on a written response format. A regulated system with clear guidelines for the tone and content of the comments would likely produce positive results, and avoid inappropriate statements similar to those  occasionally found on RateMyProfessors.com. Answers could be reviewed and then made public to students, as the numerical responses currently are. Such changes, combined with increased publicity of the Mercury Course Evaluation answers, could lead to a shift among McGill students away from RateMyProfessor.com towards a more reliable and fair system of evaluation. Surely, professors would appreciate decreased use of the website which allows crass comments and even condones objectification with a chili pepper button to indicate ‘hotness.’  Students, too, would benefit from an informative and organized database of course evaluations. Everyone stands to win.

Julie Vanderperre is a U3 Political Science student and Managing Editor at the McGill Tribune

  • dadeha

    You’ve landed on the problem in one of your sentences: the Mercury Course Evaluations have never been designed for, nor have then ever been aimed at, student usage. The course evaluations are used by administration to evaluate a) the class and b) the professor. I think McGill would have to drastically reorient that philosophy behind the system if it were ever to become useable for students.

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