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Consumer Reports


Web sites help students rate professors

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) "OMG you guys - he is SO HOT you HAVE to get him."

"Pointless class with an even more pointless professor."

"Please, retire or rejoin the cast of Dawn of the Dead."

Scribblings on the wall in a college bathroom? Nope. Just another week's postings on ratemyprofessors.com.

The Web site - and a half-dozen others like it - is revolutionizing a grand old campus tradition, the collegiate grapevine that spreads names of easy teachers, cake classes and professors who never met a student they liked.

As summer begins and students register for fall classes, students are logging on and checking out the reputations of the instructors they'll face in the fall.

The concept began in 1999, when John Swapceinski, a California computer programmer, was earning his master's degree at San Jose State University. "I had one professor who was particularly dastardly - he was really an unfair grader and a nasty person," says Swapceinski. "Later I found out there was another professor who taught the same course who was a lot better. I thought, `Geez, if I'd only known.' "

Swapceinski's brainchild, ratemyprofessors.com, has exploded in growth and spawned a host of imitators. The site now boasts 880,000 reviews of more than 197,000 professors, instructors and teaching assistants nationwide.

The sites also have drawn the ire of professors, who say the Web sites don't attract all students, just those with an ax to grind. In reality, says Swapceinski, about half the reviews are positive.

To the students, the sites are empowering.

"If you have a really good professor, you want to tell everyone about him," says Joe Hurwitz, a junior business major at the University of Central Florida. "And if you have a really, really bad professor, you feel the need to warn other students about him."

And at UCF, a campus exploding with students and instructors, the sites have been wildly popular, more so than at the University of Florida and Florida State University. Of the 3,000 colleges and universities on the ratemyprofessor.com Web site, UCF ranks 10th in use_with 6,203 opinions on 962 faculty members.

The reason, students say, may be the sprawling nature of the university. UCF's commuter-heavy student body isn't as well-connected as students in more-traditional college towns. So networking via the Internet may be the most efficient way to learn about the good, the bad and the ugly.

Online, the ratings can be fiery or mild.

Students rail about condescending professors, mean-spirited or inept teachers. "This teacher is the reason I changed my major," one student wrote about a chemistry professor. A criminal justice professor's class drove one student to write: "He is all the negative things you hear about him on campus."

Students also rate teachers based on their exams ("her tests are insanely difficult") and fairness ("What teacher gives new material the last day of class when the final is the next day?"). Students comment on teachers' behavior ("It is entertaining watching her get angry at people in class") and accents ("He speaks every language except for English.")

Even freshmen are wise to the online ratings.

Eighteen-year-old Carmen Martinez heard about professorperformance.com during her first semester at UCF.

Now she routinely uses the site - not to select classes, but to double-check the reputations of professors. "Overall, the ratings were pretty accurate," says Martinez, an English literature major who logged on to find out what other students thought of the instructors she'd already had. "I know my opinion wouldn't match everyone else's opinion, but it helps me learn about their teaching style."

And teaching style matters. For example, UCF sophomore Bobby Marcoux learned online that his computer science professor's review sessions were so comprehensive that students could skip class and still earn good grades. So he quit attending class, except for review sessions, and got an A.

Last semester, when Marcoux, 19, needed a psychology class, he chose a professor who, according to Web site lore, gives extra credit for learning to juggle. "I already know how to juggle," says Marcoux, a communications major, "so I took him."

Though most students applaud the Web sites, professors view them warily.

Seth Elsheimer, who teaches organic chemistry at UCF, knew he wouldn't get only hugs and kisses from his students. And he was right.

Though many students love him - "This guy is multitalented and loves students," wrote one - others aren't so charitable: "There are better uses of organic chemistry than as an implement of torture."

Students who like him have logged on, of course, but Elsheimer suspects that disgruntled students are much more likely to weigh in - resulting in a sample that's not very scientific.

And students can be especially harsh on professors who teach required courses, not electives, because they see those professors standing in the way of a diploma or a good grade-point average.

"If you teach organic chemistry, you've already got several strikes against you," says Elsheimer.

Given that, he shrugs off the criticism. "If students aren't complaining about you a little bit," Elsheimer says, "then you're probably not doing your job."

But students themselves are leery of the occasional bad review. "You can tell when someone's angry at a professor," says Marcoux. "I'll be reading all these great things about them and then you'll see a comment like `worst teacher I ever had.' " Marcoux rules out such comments, figuring the student either didn't go to class or got a bad grade.

At Florida's Rollins College, the campus is small enough that many students and professors know each other, so there's little demand for the Web sites. And Eduardo Fernandez is happy he never consulted one. He has just completed his MBA, Fernandez says, and "some of the best professors I had in college and in graduate school were the ones with the reputation for being the hardest."

Since the 1960s and 1970s, colleges and universities have asked students to evaluate their instructors at the end of each semester. But those evaluations generally aren't easily obtainable by students. So it's up to entrepreneurs such as Swapceinski to fill the information void.

"When I hear that students are using my site to choose their classes, that makes me feel good," Swapceinski says. "I'm making a difference."

What kind of difference remains to be seen. But word is that some professors have quietly started reading their online reviews - including UCF's English instructors, says graduate teaching assistant Tina Kapp.

"They're an anonymous forum in which the students can say what they truly think about your class," Kapp says, "and I believe we shouldn't ignore that."

Even high school students are joining the movement. At Florida's Lake Mary High School, students are flocking to ratemyteachers.com, where they have posted ratings for more than 130 of the school's teachers. Though some teachers have earned frown-face ratings, many comments are positive.

"You'd be surprised," says Lake Mary sophomore Gloria Tavera. "A lot of the polls do accurately reflect the teachers."

Gloria, 16, reads the ratings but has never rated a teacher herself. "I'd feel kind of funny judging them."

And though teachers believe students post only negative ratings, ratemyteachers.com founder Nancy Davis says 60 percent of the ratings are positive. Still, when school-district officials learned of the site, they blocked all district computers from accessing it. The reason? Lake Mary principal Boyd Karns says district officials don't want students spending school time rating their teachers.

Karns may be grateful for one thing. On ratemyteachers.com, high-school students cannot rate their teachers as "hot," whereas college students give out chili peppers to good-looking instructors. Instead, the high school site lets students use sunglasses for particularly "cool" teachers.

Why no chili peppers?

"The schools would be all over us!" says Nancy Davis.

And for the college instructors, the chili peppers remain a mixed blessing.

"That," says UCF's Kapp, the owner of a chili pepper rating, "is a little bit embarrassing."

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