Grading the Professors

UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 12 | Dec.
4, 2003

New database makes it official

By Michelle Cook

For decades, university students had a simple way to rate
their professors — word of mouth. These days, they’re
likely to visit a Web site called where
students can anonymously post comments on the teaching abilities
of their instructors. They can even use chili peppers to identify
who’s “hot” on campus.

And if you think UBC students aren’t using it — think
again. The U.S.-based site contains reviews of nearly 250,000
post-secondary teachers across North America — including
1,810 instructors from UBC.

If Laura Best has her way, UBC students won’t need
to rely on chili pepper rankings to get information about
their professors.

Earlier this year, Best, the VP Academic for the AMS, began
working with university officials to create the Teaching Excellence
Initiative (TEI), an online database containing comprehensive
evaluation data on UBC instructors.

“Students are frustrated so they’re creating
their own evaluation systems,” Best says. “They
want this information, and it should be presented in a professional
manner, not with chili pepper rankings beside professors’

“UBC has wonderful faculty, brilliant researchers and
engaging teachers. They’re diverse and accomplished
and [with TEI], I want to showcase that to incoming and current
students so that when they have to make choices about courses,
or about coming here to UBC, they can make educated decisions.”

Currently, UBC has no centralized database of information
on its faculty members and instructors, and access to evaluation
data is inconsistent among the university’s 12 faculties.
In the past, another AMS initiative called the Yardstick attempted
to provide online teaching evaluations, but the project failed
due to lack of faculty participation, limited scope of information,
and concerns that the system was being used to compare and
judge faculty members.

The TEI database would be a maintained by the university
and searchable by instructor or course. It would contain information
on an instructor’s various areas of expertise — teaching,
research and published works — as well as strengths and interests.
Best would also like the database to eventually include each
professor’s teaching philosophy.

Best hopes the TEI’s scope will help it to succeed
where the Yardstick did not.

“I think that it’s comprehensive and that has
been a real selling point with people who aren’t comfortable
with the idea of a professor with a number rating beside their
name,” she says.

As a third-year arts student, Best says she finds it frustrating
to fill out evaluation forms for her courses at the end of
each term and never see the end result of the evaluation process.
Judging from feedback received by the AMS, other students
feel the same way.

“Students e-mail me asking about teaching evaluations
for certain departments and during the AMS elections, students
were asking what we would do about evaluations,” Best

“Now, if you want an evaluation on a teacher, you have
go to the department in person and request it. If you want
to know what a professor’s research interests are, you
have to go to the department homepage. Then, if you want to
find a course that the professor teaches, you have to go to
the student services centre. The information is out there,
but at different levels of accessibility and most students
don’t know to ask for evaluations and most departments
don’t publicize them,” Best says.

In comparison, the University of Western Ontario has a comprehensive
online database of undergraduate course and instructor evaluations
that is maintained by the university. The University of Toronto
works with the Arts and Science Student Union to publish the
“anti-calendar” a comprehensive online listing
of professor evaluations that is publicly accessible and supported
by the dean of Arts and Science. Based on the recommendations
of a task force created to look at teaching evaluations, the
University of Calgary has created a Universal Student Rating
of Instruction (USRI) website that includes a ratings database
accessible to students and faculty. McGill is beginning to
make its teaching evaluations available through an Internet

Although the TEI is still in its early stages, Best has been
encouraged by the support it has received from the university
administration, senate, the AMS and The Centre for Teaching
and Academic Growth (TAG).

“Our belief is that students should have as much good
information as possible to choices about what courses they
want to take and that information needs to be in-depth and
multidimensional,” says TAG director Gary Poole.

The Faculty of Arts was already building a database of teaching
evaluations and professor profiles when it was approached
by Best to participate in the AMS initiative. The faculty
sees the benefits of the TEI for both students and professors
says Margery Fee, associate dean for Arts.

“I think this is great step forward. My feeling is
that we have some excellent teachers here at UBC and some
average, and some even below average, and this will help professors
get their competitive urges going.”

Best admits that some faculties, like Arts, are more interested
in TEI than others. She hopes that when the Arts site launches
in spring 2004, it will spur all faculties to participate.

“Students have been asking for evaluations for a long
time and it’s a question of finding a way that’s
accessible to students and representative of faculty members
and beneficial to the university and I think this model addresses
all those needs.”