Science behind how students rate professors

The language behind how professors are rated often speaks more than numbers.

A recent National Public Radio study analyzed more than 14 million reviews on the website ratemyprofessors.com. The study found a glaring difference in how male and female professors are rated among universities.

Male professor’s intelligence are more likely to come under consideration when reviewed, whereas a female professor’s nurturing ability is considered.

Identified within the study are “trigger” words, which were tallied in student reviews of professors. Across 25 subjects of study, these trigger words appeared hundreds-of-thousands of times.

The appearance of the word “brilliant,” was an indicator of intelligence. Males were attributed with “brilliant” on more occasions than females in each of the 25 subjects of study.

In two subjects, philosophy and political science, females breached the 100,000 mark for appearances of the word “brilliant.” Males breached the same mark in seven subjects.

At the opposite end, females did not breach 50,000 appearances in 17 subjects of study. The contrast exists again in males, where all except five subjects breached the same mark.

The largest gap exists among English professors as males were attributed near 150,000 times, whereas females were attributed at half the amount.

“I am intrigued [by the study], but not entirely surprised,” said Jack Gray, a senior in the Hutchins School of Liberal Studies. “It’s interesting because people think of teaching as a female dominated profession, but there is a caregiver expectation attached to them. I thought that expectation would diminish as you go through to higher education, but it’s interesting to me that according to the study, it continues.”

Senior and Hutchins School of Liberal Studies major Amanda Boniface isn’t surprised by the double standard shown with the study.

“[The study] is almost not surprising, unfortunately, to see what the study said. ‘Brilliant,” was the part that was most striking,” said Boniface. “You don’t think of a lot of your female teachers as brilliant as often as you would a male.”

Females represented 64.4 percent of professors in post-secondary education in the United States according to the Teaching and Learning International Survey. Females constituted a larger percentage in primary-and- secondary education, at 76 percent according to a 2007-08 study by the Institute of Education Sciences.

“If you go through all your primary education thinking of your female teachers more as mother figures, you might still have those habits by the time you get to college, even though it’s not at a conscious level,” said Gray.  

Brilliant as an attribution was contrasted by the word “strict,” an indicator of personality.  Females were attributed with the word “strict” on more occasions than males in each of the 25 subjects of study.  

In all 25 subjects, females breached 50,000 attributions and more than half breached 100,000 attributions, whereas males breached that same mark in four subjects. 

English was again a study, which did not favor female professors. Female English professors were the only group to breach the 200,000 attribution mark.

“I think women are looked at by both males and females for their nurturing ability, and that is what is expected of them,” said Boniface. “With men it’s taken out of the equation and they are able to be looked upon by their academic caliber. At Sonoma State, I think that female students may be more sensitive to the success of women and observant if they are brilliant.”

On ratemyprofessors.com, a numerical score ranging from 1.0 to 5.0 is given as an overall indicator of the professor’s quality. Helpfulness, clarity and easiness are subcategories a professor is rated to determine the overall quality.

Despite the language used to describe female professors, their overall rating averaged only a tenth of a point lower than males in the NPR study. Sonoma State University favors female professors slightly according to analysis on the website from 2003 to present, in overall quality. Analysis of professors with at least 30 reviews, females averaged 3.5, whereas males averaged 3.46.

Sonoma State trends toward reviewing male professors more often. Of the top 25 reviewed professors, 18 were male. The seven female professors within the top 25 were reviewed 574 times, whereas their counterparts totaled 1,597.

Only a single female professor received more than 100 reviews. Rated a 4.1, the biology professor appeared to be rated on her personality, according to words she triggered most often. “Nice” and “sweet,” related to personality qualities, appeared 35 and 16 times respectively. An indicator of profession or ability was the word “great,” which was triggered 19 times.  

Rated 4.5 and reviewed at a nearly equal rate, a male science professor offered a contrast. Students were more likely to focus on ability. He triggered “great” 35 times, “nice” eight times and “sweet” three times.