You can find ratings for just about everything online: hotels, restaurants, and university professors. On such websitse as Ratemyprofessor.com, prospective students can find out who the "hot" profs are, and the easy markers. (Along with more valid and purportedly objectives assessments of knowledge and fairness.)
But while more formal student evaluations factor into promotions and decisions about tenure, a new University of Ottawa study suggests that more than a fair share are examples of mean-spirited "tit-for-tat." As in, give me a bad grade, and I'll take revenge by dissing you on the internet.
"I was stunned by how vitriolic some of the comments were," psychologist Tracy Vaillancourt, the author of the study told The Globe and Mail. "For example, one student actually wrote the veiled threat, 'Hope that I never find you!'"
Of course, she concedes that it's not surprising that bad marks in a class would prompt a student to give a negative evaluation of the professor - just as good marks are more likely to prompt a positive one. But the findings, she says, continue to raise questions about the validity of student evaluations and how they should be interpreted - as well as the not-so-subtle pressure they place on professors to give grades for sub-par work.
The study, which was published today in the journal Aggressive Behaviour, involved 486, mostly first-year students. In one experiment, they were asked to write an essay on euthanasia that would then be graded by a professor. They then received marks for their essay, including comments, such as, "No suggestion, great essay!" or "This is one of the worst essays I have ever read!" (The student also completed measures on self-esteem and narcissism.) The study found that students with higher levels of narcissism were more likely to make negative (and aggressive) evaluations of the professor.
Even if there was an encouraging note attached to a low grade, the comments were still far more likely to be negative. As one such student noted: "The evaluator is a complete dumb ass."
Overall, students were between 10 and 19 times more likely to write a negative evaluation if their mark was low.
While the study was performed in a laboratory, and student evaluations would also be impacted by interest in the course and the general view of the professor, Dr. Vaillancourt also pointed out that the study further demonstrates that grades matter a lot - and that, essentially, a good evaluation can be "bought" with a high grade.
"There is a lot of pressure on professors to get good teaching evaluations," Dr. Vaillancourt points out. "And one way to keep students happy is to give them good grades."
Editor's note: Tracy Vaillancourt is a psychologist. The study involved 486 students. Incorrect information appeared in the original version of this article.