It’s 5:59 a.m. All across ASU’s four campuses, students are waiting with bated breath for the precise moment when class registration begins, when they can register for their desired courses before the rest of the school wakes up in order to get the most favorable teachers earliest. Some classes are gone within mere minutes, lost forever to those students sleeping in. These are the classes students actually want to take, the ones taught by professors with rave reviews, the ones for which wait lists are created.
A tad dramatic? Perhaps. But there is an element of truth to this. There are always some professors that, no matter what they teach, seem to have classes that fill up in no time at all and whose students affix superlative after superlative of waxing eloquently about them on RateMyProfessors.com.
Look at Erik Johnston, an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs. Johnston currently holds a 5 ranking (the highest possible) on RMP with 52 student ratings. He even has a smoking chili pepper, used to denote attractiveness. One student refers to him as “the best professor I ever had,” another writes “this is easily the best class I ever took in college,” and one student says “take him, take him, take him.”
Johnston teaches a rather interesting class, though. That is to say, he teaches it in an interesting way. Even Johnston admits that the subject matter itself - Introduction to Public Administration – “isn’t sexy.” To overcome this, Johnston has devised experiments to show the class how the information discussed in public administration and policy in general does impact their lives.
In one class, he inflated grades for a semester, all the while asking students at the beginning of each class if they needed to talk about grades at all. No one spoke up. The last class of the semester, he asked them how they felt about the grades in the class. No one thought the grades were too hard and around one-third thought the class was at about the right level of difficulty. A full two-thirds, though, felt the class had been too easy. He asked why no one had spoken up, even though they recognized that it was an unfair grading system, before saying, “Look, if you’re going to appreciate that there is a structural balance but recognize that it benefits you, do you see how hard it is to change how the system is working?”
Johnston is an engaging and energetic speaker. Indeed, if there’s one commonality between highly rated professors, it’s a focus on engaging the student in learning, in both conventional and unconventional ways.
Take Dean and Jacob Kashiwagi, a father and son duo that teach classes on logic and leadership at Barrett and a variety of other classes at the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment. Dean Kashiwagi holds a 4.9 RMP rating with 110 reviews, while Jacob Kashiwagi has a 5.0 with 38 reviews (and the coveted smoking chili pepper).
“We’re here for the benefit of the student, not our own," Jacob says. "The welfare and the mental and physical wellbeing of the student and the direction of the student is far more important than grades.”
They make the classes more student centered by focusing on topics relevant to their students.
Dean Kashiwagi is a rather small, soft-spoken man with a visionary teaching style.
“We teach totally different,” he says, speaking slowly, but with a tone that betrays his enthusiasm for the subject. “We realized that, if you make it simple, students learn more. We put them in a class where there are no rules except to turn off your electronics, we reduce their stress and we expose them to simple logic. And the results are phenomenal.” Students agree, writing that their course was “probably one of the most beneficial courses I have taken so long,” and that “the best class and teachers you will ever have.”
Perhaps look at Michael Lyon, who teaches at the School of Politics and Global Studies. He says that the focus on the student is key.
“Learning to treat my students as valued clients is, I believe, the key to improving the educational experience of both educators and their students,” he says.
It’s not enough to teach students the way they were taught 20 or 30 years ago, because our generation has a different way of seeing the world, according to Lyon.
“My students (largely millennials) have likely spent thousands of hours in front of video screens and are enculturated to most efficiently process data visually rather than aurally,” he says.
He finds that using videos and images can engage students more, and that technology can be a vital part of getting students involved in learning. In addition, comedy can play a role in getting students ready to learn, and Lyon has a plethora of RMP ratings praising his humor.
“Classrooms can be scary places,” he says. “I believe humor is one tool that can reduce the natural barriers between student and instructor.”
There’s also Aram Chavez, who teaches technology entrepreneurship.
“I’m lucky because of what I teach," he says. "Entrepreneurship is all about dreaming, so it’s great to be able to get students to dream.”
One student says he “goes out of his way to help students” while others praise the multitude of real world events that he works into his lectures.
There is a definite mindset among the most highly rated professors which may seem obvious: The students should be the focus of the classroom. With this observation, though, these teachers make every stride to help their students, to make sure they’re engaged and interested in the lecture. It’s really caring about the students and wanting them to not just learn the course material, but to learn how to think.
Lupco Spasovski, an instructor at the Department of English, puts it succinctly: “I can only say this: I love my job. I’m not here for the money,” he says, laughing.
Perhaps the most telling tidbit about the professors featured in this article is the frequent inclusion of a “Does that make sense?” into their conversation. It indicates the extent to which they want to understand how the student is doing, if they’re comprehending the curriculum and if they need any extra help or guidance.
But what do these professors think of the very service which thinks of them so highly? After all, there are a few flaws in the site.
For one, there’s the gender balance. Women professors are talked about in starkly different terms on the site, according to Professor Benjamin Schmidt of Northwestern University in an interview on the NPR affiliate station WNYC. He looked at data from 14 million reviews on RMP, and though women were only rated lower by an average of one tenth of a point, they were more likely to be called “sweet, shrill, warm, cold, beautiful and evil,” while men were more likely to be called “smart, idiot, interesting, boring, cool and creepy.” Of course, these problems are likely also endemic to the internal ratings which the school collects from students.
However, of perhaps greater harm to the students using the site to get recommendations on which classes to take, there are only three criteria: helpfulness, easiness, and clarity, which really don’t measure how much students learned. This could lead to some professors being marked down just because the material of the class was too hard for them.
Indeed, James Felton, a finance and law professor at the University of Central Michigan, found a positive correlation for easiness and quality. In addition, he discovered one for attractiveness and quality. David Epstein, writing for Inside Higher Ed, summarized these results by saying, “If you aren’t sexy, you might want to be easy.”
Most glaringly, though, there is no way to make sure that the students writing these reviews have taken these professors or are even students at ASU.
Though these criticisms remain important to consider, many professors see RMP as an important resource for both students and the teachers themselves. Many have found useful feedback on the site.
"One of the most recent comments was about how I might lean too far to the left," Johnston says. "That brings up the interesting point of how do I move the political conversation from my own personal one to being a more general discussion of the values at play?”
Dean and Jacob Kashiwagi also look at the site to see how students react to their interesting teaching methods, and whether they need to change anything about the course so that their methods are being used as effectively as possible.
Students, of course, benefit more directly from the site. Because we don’t have access to the internal evaluations of faculty, students must rely on other students, often in the form of sites like RMP, koofers.com, and uloop.com (the emphasis on RateMyProfessors over similar websites in this article is due to the relative popularity – RMP is the most commonly used teacher rating site, according to analytics from Alexa, an arm of Amazon.com.)
Some see this as a problem. "I believe that there are a couple of reasons not to report the internal ratings of professors, but there are many reasons to report student ratings from past semesters," Lyon says. "It’s an issue of transparency. Students should have some idea of what you’re buying before you pay for it in advance.”
He says that, though RMP is useful, a better option would be a similar system managed by ASU, so that students knew the reviews were coming from students who actually took classes from the professors they’re reviewing. Spasovski, Johnston, and Chavez and Jacob Kashiwagi agreed that RMP provided a helpful resource to students when making their choices.
Johnston asks his classes at the beginning of each semester why they’re taking the class. “In the three years that I’ve been teaching, no one has ever said ‘I’m taking the class because I want to learn the material,’" he says. "It’s either, I have to fulfill a requirement, it’s for my major, or it’s because of Rate My Professors.” Chavez seconds this, saying that he has increasingly heard students talk about Rate My Professors as a reason for taking his class.
In a school with thousands of faculty, it’s difficult to narrow down class choices, and we rely on the data that’s available. Until something better comes along, RMP can help connect students to the teachers that care most about their pupils, the ones “experimenting” on their classes and introducing them to new ways of thinking. In other words connecting them in a flawed way to some of the best of ASU.
Reach the writer at Eric.W.Dunn@asu.edu.