Why College Students Give Bad Ratings to Professors With Asian Names

A new study published in the journal Language in Society reveals that educators at U.S. colleges with European-sounding last names tend to get better ratings from students than those with Asian-sounding last names.

Used by students to evaluate their teachers, Rate My Professors is both popular and polarizing. That’s because students can say whatever the heck they want and educators can see their ratings and comments. Professors say the ratings are unfair because they lack quantitative or scientific research.

Georgia State University grad student Nicholas Close Subtirelu compared ratings and comments on the site given to U.S.-born mathematics instructors against those with Chinese and Korean-sounding surnames. In categories of clarity and helpfulness on the site, over 1,000 non-native Asian instructors were rated far more harshly and students’ comments centered more on their accents than their teaching methods. Extreme comments included,“HE BARELY SPEAKS ENGLISH,” “Don’t take him unless you know Chinese” and “Did not understand a single word he said all quarter,” according to Bloomberg. In addition, the word “best,” as in “She’s the best professor,” was found to be more often used in U.S.-born teachers’ reviews than in the reviews for Asian-born teachers.

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Subtirelu told The Times Higher Education that there might be real concern related to accents and language barriers and capabilities, but he also pointed out that the Rate My Professors methodology may be too “simplistic” and that Asian staff “who can’t speak English” might just be another bias.

“There’s ample reason not to take these comments at face value,” he said, given that students may exaggerate “the communication problems they face.” His research also pointed to the fact that students used Rate My Professors primarily to find easy-A classes, or classes that require the least amount of effort to receive a top grade in.

Subtirelu said:

“The easiest A then is to be found not with the instructor with the Chinese or Korean last name, but with the name that suggests the instructor is originally from the US.”

This isn’t the first time Rate My Professors has generated controversy. Last month, a study found that female instructors are more likely to be negatively reviewed and stereotyped than male instructors. For example, male professors were more likely to be described as “funny,” while that same description was used more rarely for female professors. In addition, male professors who were described as demanding were found to be deserving of respect while women who were demanding were seen as a “bitch.”

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