College Professor Evaluation Systems Penalize Good Instructors

Professor Evaluation Systems Decrease Academic Rigor

Academic rigor is a necessary component in creating an elevated educational experience. So how does the combination of both online and university professor rating systems result in applied pressure for professors to decrease academic rigor?

Professor Evaluation Websites are Detrimental

The major websites used by students include and, which are both free.  In addition to providing qualitative student reviews of professors, these online services provide detailed grade profiles for each professor’s recent classes taught. MyEdu which acquired and now operates PickaProf states on their homepage the following regarding Official [college] Records:  

“MyEdu works directly with universities to post their official grade records, including average GPA and   drop rates.  Yes, really – these are the official grade records straight from your university.”

A university president informed me that state open records act laws require universities to furnish this information. Students can see the professor’s full grade distribution on a bar graph with how many As, Bs, Cs, Ds and Fs were given in recent semesters for each different course. They can also see the number of students who dropped the course.

These free online professor evaluation services have a major impact on how students select professors and courses. The priority for most students is enrolling in courses and identifying instructors within these courses that have easy work requirements and where students can find liberal graders. This readily available information too often results in steering students away from more academically rigorous instructors and courses.

Let’s examine the drop rate. One might determine that students choose instructors with low drop rates as high drop rates would reflect poor-quality teachers as students should know best. On the contrary, high drop rates usually reflect the more rigorous professors, as students drop the course to avoid a more stringent workload.

College students have a great deal of choice among which professors they will get as they register not only for the course, but a specific instructor and time slot. This selection process is unfortunate as most undergraduate students do not have the maturity to realize the correlation of what you put into your education is what you get out.

University-Based Professor Rating Systems are Also Detrimental

Currently the vast majority of instructor evaluations that administrators and department heads rely on are end-of-the-semester, anonymous, online, numerical student feedback surveys. As in the online rating services, most students reward professors that have easy course requirements and those that are liberal graders. See one of my related postings, “Business School Professors: Who is their Customer and Who Should Evaluate Them?”

Professor Evaluation Systems Raise Questions About  How Academic Rigor is Decreased

University survey ratings influence professor tenure, compensation and the job satisfaction of being considered a popular instructor. The majority of students do not reward effective and rigorous instructors with high marks. This in turn results in professors compromising their academic rigor to achieve higher survey rankings.

Now combine this above predicament with the following additional reality. Department heads feel pressure to keep student count as high as possible in those courses they offer. A higher total department student count creates more justification for a larger number of departmental faculty and Ph.D. students. Additional considerations improved by larger departmental student counts include  job security and compensation, office location and size, and funding allocations. Department heads become quantity driven, not quality driven.

More rigorous professors experience shrinking class sizes due to both negative word of mouth and the power of these readily available online websites such as RateMyProfessor and PickAProf. Academic rigor translates into less initial class signup and students dropping the course. This becomes a spiraling process whereby higher drop rates openly disclosed on websites result in less signup in future semesters as students avoid harder instructors.

Smaller Class Sizes Can Undermine Professor Rank for Future Classroom Success

Within a few semesters rigorous professors see their class size shrink in comparison to other easier instructors unless the course demand is so great that all sections fill up. I personally experienced this while teaching a Management Information Systems class during consecutive spring and summer semesters. During the spring semester I was a new professor and had a full section with about 50 students. My teaching approach of assigning weekly mini-cases to create real-world application generated a lot more work compared to my fellow colleagues teaching numerous other sections.  To illustrate how much these students benefited from my approach, below are two unsolicited emails I received at the completion of the semester:

First Student: “I learned a lot in this class about presentation and how to find answers.  I notice your teaching style is more “teach people to fish, feed them for a lifetime” rather than to spoon- feed the individual, which I like.  I enjoyed your class a lot; it was a lot more challenging than I anticipated, being that I have been involved in Business Information Systems since I was 10 years old.  I can honestly say that I have spent more time preparing for [this] class than any other in my college career and I was more prepared for this class than any other in my life.  I think it was well worth it though.”

Second Student: “Thank you again for a most enjoyable class. I think I learned more in this class than I did in my other classes.  It was more real world than any other classes. I wish you the best and plan to stay in touch. I feel you could be a valuable resource in the not so distant future as I make some life changes down the road.”

What ultimately happened as far as class enrollment? I had eight students drop the course during the spring semester. For the summer session I was initially assigned to a mid-morning class that never enrolled over 10 students. I would surmise that negative word of mouth and unfavorable RateMyProfessor comments regarding my elevated spring semester work requirements were scaring students away. About two weeks from the beginning of the summer session, the course coordinator switched me to an evening section that had 23 students enrolled. By the start of the semester the class size not only didn’t grow last minute (this usually happens) but shrunk to 16 students.

At the completion of teaching these two consecutive semesters I passed onto my oversight faculty a number of very complimentary unsolicited student emails I received. During the semester this same oversight faculty member sent me a very complimentary email from the observations he made while attending a class of mine. Despite this very positive feedback, instruction inquiries to continue instructing this course were curtailed. The distorted professor rating systems, high drop rates and smaller class sizes combined to undermine the opportunity to continue teaching at this university.

Propelling Good Instructors Forward to Maintain Their Academic Rigor               

To address this dysfunctional professor evaluation system changes on multiple fronts need to occur: 

1. Professor evaluations must be overhauled to rely on faculty and not student findings                                                                            

Student evaluations are important in identifying red flags that may need to be covered with a professor. However, university instructor evaluation needs to rely primarily on department oversight that extensively reviews course materials and observes faculty while teaching. This in-depth evaluation by departmental oversight rarely occurs. Instead the students are placed in the driver’s seat in determining which are “good” instructors through these anonymous, online surveys.

2. College grading records should not be open to the public                                                       

College administrators need to get political support at the state level to avoid having to release this information. The online websites will always exist with student comments; however, there is no reason to furnish grade and drop out information that only leads to most students avoiding rigorous professors.

3. Instructor names not identified until first class                                                                                                                                   

To overcome the game of adverse selection to easy instructors, universities could provide information on section times but not identify which professors are being assigned. Once the first day of class occurs students have less flexibility to change to another section.